"I popped into the doctors’ to have my toddler's cough checked," says Kate, mother of a just-turned-two-year-old. "I mentioned that I was still breastfeeding and was completely speechless when she told me, 'you know there is no goodness in your milk after three months.'"
Kate was disturbed by what her doctor said as she'd planned to continue breastfeeding - but was now put off by what she'd been told.
Then there are also mums like Emma, who are completely devastated when weaning happens early because of medical issues. Emma says, "I tried and tried to breastfeed for three months but I battled low supply and ended up with postnatal depression. During this time, I was topping my baby up with formula and everyone kept telling me that the formula meant he wouldn't be getting any protection from the breast milk, so it wasn't worth stressing myself."
In reality, for however long you breastfeed or how much breast milk you are able to give your baby, this magic potion made by mums is like medicine. It helps protect your baby against nasty bugs from coughs and colds to tummy bugs. Breast milk is like a daily vaccination against every bug your baby comes in contact with: it is a living fluid containing healthy bacteria, antibodies, white blood cells, antimicrobials and cell wall protectors and proteins that offer protection against bacteria and viruses. If you catch a bug, specialised white blood cells will appear in your breast milk to protect your baby. Conversely, if your baby becomes sick, the transfer of germs from baby to your breast will trigger the production of specific antibodies. These antibodies will be deposited into your milk to boost your baby's immunity and help her fight off illness. (Of course, vaccination to the Australian Childhood Immunisation Schedule is still recommended.)
And it’s not just the milk your baby drinks that can boost her health and make her feel better – mothers the world over have used their milk as a cure-all for lots of minor aches and pains. With a few squirts, you can soothe rashes and itchy bites, relieve sunburn, unblock snotty noses and fix conjunctivitis. Some health practitioners even advise treating ear infections with a few squirts of breast milk every hour or two.
Some of the most recent research about human milk affirms that using breast milk to fix these common ailments isn't just the basis of old wives’ tales. Studies into the antibacterial agents of mother’s milk reveal that breast milk has the ability to kill tumour cells and bacteria. Your magic mother’s milk can kill 40 different types of cancer cells and has been shown to help reverse antibiotic resistance. It’s all about a protein in breast milk called Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made Lethal to Tumor cells, known as HAMLET.
According to researchers at the University of Buffalo, HAMLET can help treat people with those nasty superbugs that cause pneumonia, MRSA, and staph infections. When HAMLET was recently tested on patients who had bladder cancer, after each treatment, the patients' urine was tested to reveal that the dead cancer cells were excreted. HAMLET did not affect healthy cells.
Contrary to advice such as that offered by Kate’s doctor, as long as you are breastfeeding, your milk is providing your child with essential proteins, nutrients antibodies and other protective substances, and will continue to do so for as long as you continue nursing. In fact, some immune factors actually become more concentrated during the second year of life - right when your baby becomes mobile enough to play with other children and is exposed to a greater array of bugs!
If you, like Emma, find yourself confronted with challenges that may mean you breastfed for a shorter time, it may help to think of breast milk as medicine. Every drop is protection for your baby’s health. In fact, according to a breastfeeding report by Save the Children, "Super Food for Babies," 830,000 babies' lives can be saved worldwide if they are breastfed within the critical first hour after birth.
Perhaps, instead of judging yourself or allowing others to judge you around the length of time you breastfeed, snuggle your precious baby against your bare skin, nuzzle into that soft downy head, breathe in and remember, ‘every breastfeed is a success.’
Breastfeeding benefits for you and your baby over time
The first hour: baby receives colostrum, the most effective and potent immune system-boosting on the planet. This first feed stabilises baby’s blood sugar and protects his gut.
The first day: the slightly laxative effects of colostrum encourage your baby’s first bowel motion; helps seal his gut against foreign proteins (gut closure); boosts your baby’s immune system and helps your uterus to contract, reducing bleeding and aiding recovery after birth.
The fourth day: you have now given your baby his first "immunisation" (antibody-rich colostrum), and helped to get his digestive system running smoothly. Your creamy transitional milk contains high levels of fat, lactose, vitamins and more calories than the colostrum.
The first month: your baby is receiving perfect nutrition and immunity and because mother’s milk is so easy to digest, breastfeeding means he won’t be uncomfortable due to constipation. By exclusively breastfeeding for at least 1 month you have given your baby significant protection against food allergy at 3 years of age.
Six weeks: you have eased your baby through the most critical part of his infancy – new-borns who are not breastfed are much more likely to get sick or be hospitalized, and have more digestive problems than breastfed babies. Breastfeeding for 6 weeks means that your child now has less risk of chest infections up to 7 years old.
Two months: Your child now has a lower risk of food allergy at 3 years old and, if you immunise your baby, breastfeeding boosts your baby's antibody response to immunisations, strengthening the effectiveness of the vaccine. Nursing during injections will also offer comfort and pain relief.
Three months: Now, you have given your baby a 27 per cent reduction in the risk of asthma if you have no family history of asthma and a 40 percent reduction if you have a family history of asthma. You have also given your baby between a 19 and 27 per cent reduction in incidence of childhood Type 1 Diabetes.
Four months: exclusively breastfeeding for 4 months offers strong protection against ear infections and respiratory tract diseases for the first year.
Six months: By breastfeeding for 6 months you have given your baby significant protection against eczema during their first 3 years as well as a 19 per cent decrease in risk of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia and a 15 per cent decrease in the risk of acute myelogenous leukemia.
Twelve months: Many of the health benefits you have given your baby so far will last his entire life - he will have a stronger immune system, reduced risks of obesity and heart disease as an adult, as well as healthy oral development, meaning less likelihood that he will need orthodontia or speech therapy.
Beyond one year: Breastfeeding toddlers between 16 and 30 months old have been found to have fewer types and shorter duration of illness and to require less medical care than their non-breastfeeding peers. Some of the immune factors in your breast milk will increase in concentration during this second year. According to La Leche League, an international organisation supporting breastfeeding, “It takes between two and six years for a child's immune system to fully mature. Human milk continues to complement and boost the immune system for as long as it is offered.”