Breastfeeding and breastmilk composition

Breastfeeding is one of the most natural, convenient and cost effective ways to feed your new baby. The composition of breast milk, which cannot be replicated in an infant formula, contains all the essential nutrients and non-nutritional elements necessary for your baby's healthy growth and development, right from birth up until around the age of two.

Breastmilk: a dynamic living entity

Breastmilk is a dynamic living entity, in that it changes constantly, even from the beginning of a feed to the end of a feed. Other factors that can significantly impact the composition of breastmilk include the stage of breastfeeding, the mother’s breastfeeding routine including number and length of feeds, the time of day or season and the mother’s age or diet.

Breastmilk: nutritional components

  • Water
  • Proteins
  • Fats including essential (EFAs) and polyunsaturated (PUFAs) fatty acids
  • Carbohydrates (mainly lactose)
  • Minerals
  • Vitamins
  • Trace elements

The nutritional demands for women during breastfeeding are much higher than those during pregnancy. During the first 4-6 months, babies double their birthweight and the breastmilk produced in the first 4 months represents the amount of energy roughly equivalent to the total energy demand placed on a women during pregnancy. 

Supplementation studies and cross-cultural comparisons have shown that protein, fat and lactose are less sensitive to the mother’s diet and nutritional status, whereas the fatty acid profile and a number of micronutrients, particularly water-soluble vitamins and minerals such as zinc, selenium and iodine, are very sensitive to the mother’s diet.

Breastmilk: non-nutritional components

  • Antimicrobial factors
  • Digestive enzymes
  • Hormones
  • Growth factors

These non-nutritional components are absent in infant formula’s or only found in trace amounts and are particularly important to help protect babies and young infants from infections and other immune related health conditions as their immune and digestive systems are not fully developed. Many of these non-nutritional components also affect the digestion and absorption of nutrients and the bioavailability of micronutrients. 

Breastfeeding guidelines
In Australia and New Zealand, breastfeeding is recommended during the infants first year of life and then continued if it’s convenient for the mother and infant. The WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends that breastfeeding continue to be part of an infant’s diet, to children aged two years and beyond.

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