The Importance of Breastfeeding and Colostrum for Infant Health
By Farrell Seah
While there are currently many substitute formulations available for providing newborns and infants with adequate nutrition, breastfeeding should never be considered as one of many possible options. This is because the breast secretions furnished by the mother meet not only the nutritional needs of newborns and infants, but their developmental needs as well.
The pre-milk, or colostrum, secreted immediately after birth is important for the development of a healthy digestive system, and both colostrum and mature breast milk play crucial roles in the development of a strong immune system. To get the maximum benefits from these secretions and ensure optimal growth and nutrition, breastfeeding should always be chosen over artificial formulations and other food sources for as long as possible throughout the first year of life.
Colostrum is the first food available to breastfeeding newborns, and remains the primary mammary secretion for the first 3-4 days after birth. The composition of colostrum is very different from that of mature breast milk. In addition to being more yellow or orange in appearance, it is also much thicker, and is secreted in far smaller quantities. Because colostrum is a concentrated, easily digested food source that is tailor-made to meet the nutritional needs of newborn infants, breastfeeding babies do not require the large volumes of fluid required for bottle-fed babies during the first few days of life.
Breastfeeding and colostrum play an equally important role in the rapid development of the digestive system immediately after birth, and in the further strengthening of the immune system throughout the first few weeks of life. Colostrum is rich in non-nutritional proteins essential for the maturation and decreased permeability of the lower digestive tract, and newborns receiving colostrum during the first three days of life show a decreased incidence of diarrhea during their first 6 months. Colostrum also contains high concentrations of antibodies called immunoglobulins. Rather than being absorbed in the body, the immunoglobulins in colostrum adhere to mucosal surfaces in the throat, lungs, and intestines of newborns, protecting them against infection by preventing pathogens from sticking to or penetrating these surfaces.
In order to ensure optimal digestive and immune system development and meet the changing nutritional needs of newborns and infants, breastfeeding should occur as often as possible, with newborns ideally having constant access to breasts during the first 24 to 72 hours after birth. A good general guideline to follow for breastfeeding frequency is 8-12 times throughout each 24-hour period. More frequent feeding stimulates increased mature milk production, and also helps prevent engorging as babies get older. If possible, infants should continue breastfeeding for the first 6-12 months to aid in the further development of the immune system. To prevent the onset of milk or other food allergies later in a baby's development, it is often best not to introduce other foods into the diet during this time.
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