From conception to delivery, your body goes through significant changes in order to provide a great home for the growing fetus. However, the task of nurturing a new life doesn’t end at your delivery – the changes in the mother’s body continue, allowing the lactation process to take place and provide nutrition and immunological protection for your newborn.
Lactation is the process of milk production and describes the period that mothers lactate their baby. Breasts are mostly made out of fatty tissue that also contains the so called mammary glands – these glands are responsible for milk secretion. Milk travels through special ducts, after which it is released through the nipple into the baby’s mouth due to the sucking motions.
During pregnancy, your breasts grow, nipples become larger and darker, and you may notice that the veins on your breasts become more visible. Once your baby is born, the hormone oxytocin is in charge of stimulating contractions of the uterus and starting the process of lactation. The first milk that your body creates after delivery is called colostrum and it is rich in nutrients and antibodies which will serve to protect your baby from microbes and infections.
After 2 to 5 days, the real milk starts being secreted – you may notice that your breasts suddenly become several cup sizes bigger, heavier and warm to the touch. This is called engorgement and as long as your baby is nursing properly, your breasts will adjust to the amount of milk produced and there will be no issues. However, if your baby is not breastfeeding properly (the most common reason being poor latching on), the engorgement may turn into mastitis – an infection caused by the build up of milk in your breasts. That is why it is important to nurse as often as your baby needs it, or if that is not an option, to express the milk to help empty the breasts.
Lactation is controlled by the demand – the amount of milk produced is directly dependent on the amount of milk excreted during feeding sessions. World Health Organization recommends to try nursing within an hour after birth and to breastfeed on demand, or whenever you notice the first signs of hunger with your newly born baby. Ideally, your baby should be breastfed exclusively until 6 months of age, when you can start slowly introducing some solid foods. Nursing is recommended in combination with solids until the age of 2, according to WHO guidelines.
Breast milk is composed mostly of water, but it also contains carbohydrates, fats, protein, minerals and other nutrients. All of these ingredients provide your baby with everything they need to develop and grow. Antibodies and vitamins from the breast milk will also protect your little one against infections until their own immune system is strong enough to take over.
Other benefits include reduced risks of allergies, asthma, diabetes and high cholesterol. Breastfed babies are hospitalized less and see the doctor more rarely than their formula-fed peers, and there are studies that claim that nursing has been connected with higher IQ.