Whether she knows it or not, when a mother starts to breastfeed her baby in the first few days, she is helping to protect her infant from infection. But how exactly does early breastfeeding protect a baby against germs? The answer is colostrum.
Frequent feedings during the first few days ensures that your baby gets something called colostrum. This is most often called the 'first milk'. Colostrum is a concentrated form of breast milk. Unlike breast milk in the weeks, months and years to follow, it's yellowish in color and has the consistency of liquid honey. Colostrum contains immune active cells that neutralize and kill most germs that could harm your child. This is vital as the most beneficial of the anti-bodies present in colostrum, called IgA, can not be made by the newborn itself.
As well as ward off infection, colostrum is also highly nutritious. It contains a high level of fatty acids that your baby needs. It also contains an enzyme called lipase, which keeps the fat globules small and easy to digest; Lactose, the sugar found in breast milk; Vitamin D, iron and potassium. And we must not forget about your hormones and enzymes that you pass on to your baby through your breast milk.
Colostrum also does so much more. It lines your baby's gut with micro-organisms (intestinal flora) thus making digestion easier than later breast milk. Frequent feeding of concentrated colostrum will also greatly expand your baby's stomach; When your child is first born, its stomach is the size of a walnut! Finally, colostrum also stimulates the bowel into action, which helps to clear the meconium (your baby's first stools) from your child's bowel. After a few days your baby's baby bowel will be in good shape to receive your follow-on milk.
If you plan to breastfeed you should plan to breastfeed from the moment your child is born. Colostrum is produced in the first 2 to 3 days after birth and it is extremely important that your child gets your colostrum. Most hospitals now allow a mother and child to stay together so that a mother can feed her child frequently. This was not always so and sometimes, even today, mothers and babies are separated to 'allow mother to rest'. Do not allow yourself to be parted from your child if at all possible.
Your milk should come in around day 2 or 3 and may be an inconvenient time for mother. You may feel emotional, vulnerable and prone to crying. This is natural. You may also experience some pain as your breast may become very swollen, hot or hard. Your nipples may become distracted and your baby may find it difficult to latch on.
All these problems can be overcome with patience and help from professional health care workers, your family and friends. Do not be put off from breastfeeding. Colostrum is the best possible start in life any one could have.