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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Miranda

While the current recommendation based on the best available science is that all babies should be breast fed for at least six months.

Benefits of Breast Milk

Though babies are exposed to toxins and environmental pollutants excreted from the mother’s body into breast milk, such as PCBs and pesticides, epidemiological studies indicate any negative effects of these compounds are outweighed by protective effects conferred by other components of mother’s milk. Breast fed babies have a lower risk of obesity, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, asthma, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases and childhood cancers, are more likely to consume a variety of fruits and vegetables after weaning, and are less likely to undergo premature puberty. Mechanistic connections between all these correlations have not been fully elucidated, but may be related to the high levels of protein and growth factors found in cow’s milk compared to human milk, leading to excess weight gain and growth in children. Interestingly, exclusive breast feeding does not fully eliminate exposure to cow’s milk proteins when the maternal diet contains dairy products; these proteins may be absorbed and excreted intact into breast milk and may be linked to colic symptoms in infants.

Avoiding Toxins in Breast Milk

Mothers wishing to minimize toxin excretion in their breast milk may be able to decrease their exposure by avoiding animal foods, which, due to bioaccumulation, can be more highly contaminated than plant foods. Long term plant-based diets, however, may lead to decreased maternal DHA levels, an unsaturated fatty acid important for brain development. The neural development of children of strictly plant-based breast-feeding or pregnant women may be supported by maternal supplementation with 200 mg/day DHA. These supplements should be algae based, as this eliminates the associated risk of contamination with pesticides, toxins or heavy metals found with fish consumption or fish-oil based supplements. Excessive DHA supplementation (800 mg/day) should also be avoided during pregnancy and lactation, as this may also have negative effects on neural development in babies. Breast-feeding mothers consuming fenugreek seed should be aware that this may cause a maple-syrup-like smell to infant sweat, which may lead to a misdiagnosis of a serious congenital disease, branched-chain ketoaciduria, a condition which also makes the infant smell sweet.

Feeding Infants Formula

Should one be unable to personally breast feed, feeding infants with human milk from another source show identical health benefits. Allowing the baby to be fed by a wet nurse or purchasing human milk from a milk bank are two possible alternatives for procuring human milk during the crucial first six months. If these options are also not viable and formula must be utilized, some in vitro evidence suggests avoiding formulas containing carrageenan may help protect babies from inflammatory bowel diseases, leaky gut syndrome and, consequently, autoimmune diseases later in life.

 

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