Human milk. Not words we often hear or say. We’re not really used to thinking of ourselves as mammals, let alone talking about our own milk. It’s… Well, it’s not something we’re often called upon to ponder. It can feel strange or even uncomfortable thinking of ourselves as part of our planet’s ecosystem, rather than in charge of it. The thing is, there is a heavy price being paid for this disconnect. One of these prices is breastfeeding.
In the UK, a majority of around 85% of new mothers starts out breastfeeding. By six weeks, this figure has almost halved. The distressing figures continue: the vast majority of these mothers say they did not want to stop, and in many cases, stopping lead to a profound distress which Professor Amy Brown goes into in heartbreaking detail in her book Why Breastfeeding Grief and Trauma Matter.
And when breastfeeding doesn’t work for a mother who wanted to breastfeed, it’s not enough to tell her that her body just didn’t work and that it really doesn’t matter. This take often comes from a place of love as we see someone suffering and want to help the pain to go away. But it also comes from many healthcare professionals and is embedded in government policy which has cut almost every source of breastfeeding support funding.
That women want to fulfil their body’s fundamental potential and breastfeed their children should be enough for us all to understand that it does matter. The vast majority of women would succeed if they had the help they needed. And milk banks need investment to make sure that donor human milk is accessible to every family who needs it.
But there’s no profit to be made in that. And therein lies a global mindset that needs to change. The foundations of our western culture are built on principles that squarely place more value on profit than on wellbeing, and in this paradigm, instinct is not valued highly. The thing is though, our instinct is bang on. Our own milk is astounding. Our own bodies are incredible.
Every mammal produces milk that is ideally tailored to its own species. And every species has unique needs, growth rates and vulnerabilities that are catered for perfectly by its own milk. We mothers know this intuitively in our bodies.
A mother’s body will pick up on harmful bacteria or viruses on her baby’s skin, in their saliva or simply by going about the messy business of parenting. She can also come across harmful pathogens at the same time as her baby is exposed to them. And, straight away, her body goes to work and produces the antibodies that are tailored to the pathogens she has picked up on. Not just general antibodies (though there are plenty of those in her milk too) but tailor-made ones. And she will start to feed those antibodies to her baby through her milk within a matter of hours. Her baby will literally be drinking medicine that was produced in ‘the mummy lab’ a few hours ago. Often, this medicine is not accessible anywhere else in that baby’s world.
We are lucky that in the UK, babies who get sick can be seen by medical professionals within a very short time, and they can access medicine immediately. In many countries throughout the world though, getting sick can be a matter of life and death for a child. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 820,000 infants die each year who would live if they were being breastfed and protected by their mother’s milk. Over 20,000 women would also live, who die each year globally from types of breast cancer that are significantly reduced by breastfeeding. Access to human milk also saves lives in the UK.
Another astonishing component of human milk is the protein lactoferrin. Lactoferrin binds itself to the iron in a baby’s body and helps the baby to absorb it, while also preventing harmful organisms from consuming the iron instead, which they need to survive and grow. Let’s just go through that again: lactoferrin protects the iron in a baby’s body from pathogens that try to steal it to consume so that they can grow. There’s a whole superhero movie to be made about lactoferrin. It has a few more superpowers. It has an anti-tumour effect and significantly inhibits the growth of some cancerous cells. It kills a bacterium called Streptococcus mutans which causes tooth decay and cavities. It also inhibits the growth of the poliovirus, hepatitis B and C, the enterovirus (diarrhoea virus) and others.
Lysozyme is a component that destroys harmful bacteria by disrupting their cell walls. It is also an anti-inflammatory, and it increases in concentration when babies become more mobile and start to explore their surroundings – often with their mouths! It’s particularly effective against E. coli and Salmonella, and increases in concentration again around the age of 1.
Human milk contains histaminase, an enzyme that inactivates and breaks down histamine, the substance released by the body in response to allergy or stress. It also contains oxytocin, a hormone that we all produce when we feel safe and connected to someone we love, even when we are only thinking about that person. It causes feelings of wellbeing and relaxation in both mother and baby. It also causes the milk ejection reflex in the breast, which can help to explain why some women find that thinking of their baby or looking at a picture of them when they are apart and expressing helps their milk to flow.
Human milk contains stem cells. These cells divide to create and repair our bodies. They also self-renew. They are being researched in the quest for a cure for conditions like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Other components feed not the baby, but the billions of beneficial bacteria in our baby’s gut, which sets up the foundation of our lifelong microbiome health. Human milk has anti-inflammatory and pain-relief properties. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands more components.
It’s time. Time to upgrade our perception of women’s bodies. We are not decorative, we are brilliant. And those who grieve, who did not reach their own goals, are also brilliant. Future mothers need an environment in which they can thrive and succeed. Breastfeeding is a key to the health of our species as well as that of mothers and babies, and to the sustainable future of our planet.
We must come together and understand how much breastfeeding and the power of breast milk matters to us all.
Claire Tchaikowski is the founder and CEO of Human Milk, a community interest company created to promote the science of human milk and breastfeeding, in support of families globally. Its education resources are used by parents, healthcare professionals, hospitals, universities, local governments and breastfeeding support groups, in 35 countries and 18 languages. Claire lives in North Somerset with her partner and their young son. Alongside her work with Human Milk, she also writes music and performs vocal arrangements for film and TV scores.
First published in Issue 71 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.