The Magic of Breast milk
Jennifer Dick, RN, MS, IBCLC
Mama, lifelong learner, and advocate of health equity for all.
This week Minnesota winter has officially set in. It’s about this time when the holidays have passed that I begin to feel a little blah. Does this happen to anyone else? With the blahs, comes indoor hibernation and the start of snot, cough, and other symptoms that shall not be named.
Being an adult and dealing with illness is obviously annoying and inconvenient, but being sick plus having kids can create mass chaos in our house. When our sweet baby girl got sick the first time I realized the full extent of the illness domino effect. As many of you already know, sick baby means sleepless nights, missed work, breastfeeding disruptions, increased pumping, and probably some tears. Mostly tears from the baby, but I had my moments too. Usually, everyone eventually gets better without any trips to the clinic or emergency room.
And even though I was stressed and worried when our babies were sick, knowing that I was breastfeeding provided a ton of reassurance that things were probably not going to get out of control. Breastfeeding and breast milk are seriously wicked cool. I remember first learning about the milk magic when I was in college studying to be Registered Nurse. I had no idea that breast milk had the ability to keep babies healthy and prevent illness. I thought milk was milk. Oh silly me.
One of the coolest things I have learned is that the composition of breast milk changes. When a mom is exposed to illness, her body starts producing custom antibodies to fight off the illness du jour. Even crazier awesome: a baby’s saliva sends a signal to the breast and triggers the production of antibodies!!! *Pow* #Mind blown. This gave me much needed psychological relief every time we attended a party with family. (Or a sweet but intrusive stranger at the grocery store insisted on touching my baby’s face.) I can’t stop the spread of germs, but at least my boobs can go all “Go-go Gadget” and save the day.
Breast milk’s other super power is that it contains TONS of good bacteria that help create a happy gut microbiome. When our gut is filled with healthy bacteria, we are able to fight off some illnesses especially those that cause vomiting or diarrhea (aka symptoms that shall not be named). When vomiting and diarrhea do strike, breast milk is the best fluid to offer your baby due to it perfect balance of water and nutrients. If baby doesn’t want to nurse to take their normal bottle of expressed breast milk, just offer frequent small amounts with a spoon or dropper. Often, babies do not become dehydrated because time at the breast is soothing and they are able to control their milk intake.
Now, let’s be clear. Even a superhero like breast milk can’t prevent every symptom from appearing. However, it can greatly minimize the severity. A few years ago I contracted Influenza A and our son was 4 months old at the time. I… felt… terrible. I had heard about the symptoms of real influenza, but I had never experienced it. Holy Moly. Everyone else in the house got influenza also, even the baby. My worst nightmare. However, he only had a slightly elevated temp (99.5) and was crabby for a single day. He nursed a little less, but most of the time he stayed on the boob and suckled just for comfort. The next day, he was totally fine. Boobs and breast milk for the win!
I hope all of you stay healthy this winter. And if illness strikes, may the magic of breast milk be with you.
Love and hugs,