I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life when I was more aware of biology as when I was a new mother. The bond between a new mother and her child seems to define nature’s ability to evolve to meet our needs.
Nothing highlights this as much as the simple act of nursing.
As a new mother, I had heard that nursing was the choice for providing nutrition to my new baby. I wanted to know why.
Deciding to nurse was going to require an extra commitment of time and energy, especially if I was going back to work.
I wanted to provide my child with the absolute best, but I wanted all of the information first.
What I found was that the composition of breast milk changes to meet the nutritional needs of our babies at every stage of development.
Understanding this is imperative when it comes to deciding if, or how long, breastfeeding will be the best option for us and our babies.
Birth to One Week
The first few days after birth our bodies will produce what is called colostrum.
Unlike the milk that will come later, it appears almost clear, and is thicker and stickier in consistency than usual breast milk.
Our breasts won’t be as full as they will be later when our milk, “comes in.”
Many mothers make the mistake during this stage (which can last as long as long as seven days) of thinking that they can’t produce milk, and simply give up.
What they don’t realize, and are often not told, is that this is the most critical stage of nursing.
Colostrum is designed to be exactly what your baby needs during these first few days.
It is full of antibodies to protect our little ones from infections and strengthen their little immune systems.
It is also higher in protein and lower in fat than what comes later.
It is these nutritional differences are what cause the appearance to be different than what we expect.
The lower volume is also part of an intelligent design. During this first week, our babies are still learning to feed and latch on.
This is a much harder skill for baby (and mother) to learn when the breasts are full and swollen.
One to Two Weeks
At some point during three to seven days after giving birth, our milk becomes what is called “transitional milk.”
The volume of milk available will increase. This is when we start to feel our breasts become uncomfortably swollen and hard.
This is the time we hear referred to as our milk, “coming in.”
The color and consistency of the milk changes visibly, to a more traditional white color with a slight golden tinge.
This milk still has some colostrum mixed in, and still has the antibodies and immune factors, but in less concentration.
During this transitional period, the amount of protein in the breast milk starts to decrease and the concentration of fat, carbohydrates and overall calories in the milk begins to climb.
This is in direct proportion to the babies increased need of these key nutrients.
Two weeks to 6 Months
Breast milk becomes “mature milk” in most women near the second week after birth.
The milk is thin, and takes on a bluish hue that somewhat resembles skim cow’s milk.
Breast milk will continue to transmit immune benefits to our babies until they are weaned.
Mature breast milk now contains more calories, carbohydrates, and fat, but less protein than colostrum did.
The highest fat content is available towards the evening, which is most likely nature’s way of helping our little ones begin to sleep more soundly at night.
6 Months to Weaning
From 6 Months on, the nutritional composition of breast milk stays fairly similar to its previous state, the only real difference being in the volume we as mothers will produce.
Like most stages of nursing, this relies on the intuitive relationship between the mother’s body and the child’s needs.
Most babies start eating solid food at about this time, and their nutritional needs no longer need to be met exclusively from breast milk.
Special Note Regarding Premature Infants
Many mothers who deliver before thirty six weeks have great difficulty nursing.
Depending on the baby’s gestational age, latching on to the breast may be extremely difficult, or even impossible.
Most mothers are then faced with the decision to either express milk with a breast pump or use formula.
A baby born before full term has missed out on many of the nutrients delivered during gestation essential for their development.
Among these is extra protein, certain fatty acids that help with the development of the brain and the baby’s vision, and extra sodium.
Amazingly, breast milk of a mother who delivers prematurely even contains more white cells and antibodies than normal, to help protect the baby against the increased risk for infection.
At each stage of development, mother and baby are connected to achieve the goal of a healthy child.
Breast milk adjusts to give our babies exactly what they need as they grow, learn and develop.