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According to the Health Promotion Board (HPB), breast milk is the ideal natural food for your baby and exclusive breastfeeding is perfectly suited to meet a baby’s growing needs during the first six months, during which the baby does not require any other food nor fluids, including water.
Fonnie Lo, Senior Manager, ParentCraft Services/Lactation Consultant at the Thomson ParentCraft Centre concurs. “Breast milk is considered the most desirable food for babies because it benefits both the baby and the breastfeeding mother. Breast milk is nutritionally complete for your baby’s first six months of life and no further supplement is required.”
HPB advises that formula milk can never replace the nutrients of a mother’s milk. The mass-produced nutrients in formula cannot meet the unique requirements that your baby needs. As the baby develops, the milk he needs will be different. Breast milk matures over time to cater to these growing needs, from colostrum to foremilk to hind milk. These nutrients in a mother’s milk are irreplaceable and cannot be found in off-the-shelf formulas.
Breast milk provides the major nutrients that aid a newborn’s growth, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron, and are more easily digested and absorbed than formula milk. Taurine helps in the development of the brain and eyes. Dr Varsha Atul Shah, Senior Consultant, Department of Neonatal and Developmental Medicine at the Singapore General Hospital, says, “While these nutrients are at lower levels in breast milk than in formula, they are present in forms that can be completely absorbed by the intestine.”
He explains, “Lactose, the major sugar in breast milk, aids the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, and supports the growth of friendly bacteria needed to fight undesirable organisms and promote health in the human intestine. The balance of the two proteins in breast milk—60% whey and 40% casein—allows for quick and easy digestion. Formula milk has a greater percentage of casein, which is more difficult for the baby to digest. Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein that protects against bacteria. The fat in human milk comes with an enzyme, lipase, that breaks the fat down into smaller globules to be easily digested and better absorbed into the bloodstream.”
Studies also suggest that long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids and other undefined nutrients present in breast milk aid in brain development of infants. “Breast milk has been shown to enhance a baby’s cognitive development such as reading and writing. In addition, human milk contains antibodies, which offer protection against certain infections like gastro-intestinal disturbances, respiratory problems and ear infections,” Lo reveals.
Beyond fostering a closer emotional bond between mother and baby through the regular physical contact when the baby suckles, Lo informs us that breastfeeding also causes the mother’s body to secrete oxytocin to help her womb to contract and return to its normal size more quickly. Breastfeeding aids in the mother’s weight loss as her metabolic rate increases when she nurses her baby. Dr Shah adds, “Research shows that breastfeeding lowers the risk of breast, ovarian, uterine and endometrial cancer in mothers, and lowers the risk of cancers, such as lymphoma, in children as well.”
Breastfeeding is the most convenient way to feed a baby, at no cost, with no preparation nor the need for bottles. Apart from saving time and money, breast milk straight from the breast is uncontaminated and free from germs.
Breast milk is the perfect, natural, nutritious, digestible, immunogenic, cheapest and ecofriendly way to feed babies, the first immunisation and best gift a mother could bestow upon her baby. Surprisingly, it can be unsuitable for some infants. Dr Shah explains that one such group are babies born with classic galactosemia, a rare genetic metabolic disorder affecting the digestion of galactose. Babies who are lactose-intolerant at birth cannot produce enough lactase and will not be able to digest the lactose in their mother’s milk or from cow’s milk, and will require a special formula. Mothers infected with the HIV virus or undergoing anticancer treatments should also avoid breastfeeding.
The range of terms used on formulas can be confusing. The difference usually lies in the food-processing methods.
If you see the word ‘fortified’ on the label, it indicates that a nutrient not originally found in the food was added to the product.
If you see the word ‘enriched’ on the label, it tells us that a nutrient that was lost in the process was added back to the product.
The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) defines infant food as suitable for babies from birth to six months, and is a complementary food for those older than six months. While the HPB does not regulate the definition for the marketing terms used for infant milk under the Sale of Infant Foods Ethics Committee Singapore (SIFECS) Code of Ethics, it restricts the marketing and advertising of formula such that it cannot be described as being made to be similar to breast milk, and cannot imply that the formula is equivalent or superior to breast milk.
Breastfeeding is deemed an unequalled way of supporting the healthy growth and development of infants, but the Code recognises that infant formula provides an alternative, if breastfeeding is not possible.
The TCM view on breastfeeding is pretty similar to that of conventional medicine, as this chat with Senior Physician Qi Xiao Yan from the Tiong Bahru branch of Eu Yan Sang TCM Clinic proves:
“Breast milk is the most natural source of nutrition, and its benefits cannot be replicated by powdered milk. The carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins are all easily absorbed by babies without any wastage,” insists Senior Physician Qi. She points out that the protein found in breast milk is different from those found in powdered formulas. “The protein found in breast milk can be easily absorbed by babies. However, no matter how much casein you add to powdered formulas, babies will not be able to absorb them and they will, in turn, be passed out of the body.”
Senior Physician Qi also expresses similar beliefs with Western convention when it comes to the immunity-boosting ability of breast milk. “Breast milk contains a lot of antibodies; this can raise a baby’s immunity and lower its chances of catching an infection.” She also describes breast milk as easily digestible. “When food is well digested and absorbed by the baby, it can then properly develop,” she explains. Senior Physician Qi also observes that breastfed babies tend not to suffer from constipation.
The Western view is that breastfed babies need not also be given water. However, Senior Physician Qi believes otherwise. “The climate in Singapore is very warm, and babies lose water when they sweat or defecate,” she discloses. “Many parents tend to forget this. I advise parents to feed water to babies as well.” She recommends that water be fed twice as frequently at half the amount as breast milk, ie every one-anda- half hours of 25ml of water if the baby is fed 50ml of breast milk every three hours.
Breastfeeding mums should watch their diet. Spicy food should be avoided because they can cause babies to experience diarrhoea. Fried food should also be avoided because they can cause ‘heatiness’ in the baby. A simple and balanced diet is key, and the mother should be constantly hydrated. Drink more soup and water.”
It is helpful for the baby to have some supplements, such as ladybell root and cordyceps, although these aren’t really necessary. Senior Physician Qi emphasises that for babies up to four months old, milk is more than enough; only when the baby is sick do medication or supplements play a part. “Keep in mind that the baby’s organs are tender, so it is important to take note of the food you feed. Solid foods should be given incrementally after four months, and never rush this process.”
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock. This article was written by Jasmine Chung and first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.7. Find NATURA at Eu Yan Sang retail outlets, newsstands and major bookstores in Singapore.
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