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The Good Latch: Why the Love for Breast Milk Lasts

The capacity to adapt is one of the key traits of a mother’s milk and it was highlighted when the world drastically changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back in 2021, when a highly infectious virus came to a home in Bulacan, Philippines, signs of illness were seen on all of its residents except one: a six-month old baby–he who was supposed to be the most vulnerable person in the house.

It was a case observed by Dr. Kim Ticman-Mapua, a pediatrician tapped to be the lactation expert of the baby’s mother. According to Dr. Mapua, the child’s mom started feeling unwell but she initially thought that she just had “the regular flu.” She therefore didn’t distance herself from her son; she kept playing with him, kissing him and breastfeeding him. But, after five days since she began to feel sick, she lost both her sense of taste and smell. Her housemates—composed of her mother and two children older than her newborn—also started feeling ill. 

Recounting this story for PWR, Dr. Mapua reveals that the family contracted the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19.) And, while it was with them, it caused a variety of symptoms that ranged from fever to diarrhea to bodily weaknesses. But while all of this was happening, the baby exposed to his mother didn’t show symptoms. He remained playful, his appetite was promising, and even though he didn’t have a fully developed immune system at that time, he seemed generally well.

As a breastfeeding advocate certified by the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners, Dr. Mapua speculates that this may have been due to breast milk.

“Breast milk is like the first vaccine of your baby,” she tells PWR. And to her, this child is but one of the many who stand as testaments to its potency.

SUBHEAD: The “breast” option

For centuries, humanity has encountered many factors that now influence the way by which we care for children. These include advancements in technology, shifts in culture and the development of new techniques. But, even after the numerous changes we’ve experienced, breast milk, according to health experts, remains to be what’s “best for babies.”

Take, for example, what happened in recent years. When COVID-19 began infecting people at an alarming rate, lives were greatly altered. “Pandemic” became a household term, phrases like “social distancing” and “new normal” were popularized and people were encouraged by medical experts to stay distant from each other. But, in the midst of these changes, the most reputable figures in medicine didn’t discourage the consumption of breast milk often dispensed through the intimate act of breastfeeding; on the contrary, they encouraged it even more.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) breast milk is a rich source of nutrition for infants. The organization states that aside from satisfying a baby’s hunger, its contents can also protect a child from long and short-term illnesses that include asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, and sudden infant death syndrome. It also comes free for a lot of mothers, a food supply that puts little to no financial burden on families. What truly makes it remarkable, however, is adaptability—the fact that it can be modified by a mother’s body to be more relevant to the circumstances she is dealing with.

“It changes in real time,” Dr. Mapua tells PWR, supporting the CDC claim. “A mom with a premature baby produces milk for a premature baby. And if there’s an infection ongoing in the family, the mother produces milk with antibodies and she makes it available for her baby.”

This was especially relevant during the height of COVID-19. As explained by the CDC, available research suggests that the breast milk of mothers who have the virus contain antibodies that may “provide immunological protection to infants.” Additionally, most studies supported by the organization indicate that the virus cannot infect the child via breastfeeding so long as the mother practices preventative measures. These include washing up before the feeding process and wearing a mask while a baby feeds.

”That’s the power of breast milk,” Dr. Mapua says. But even with such “power,” there are valid reasons as to why it doesn’t always get chosen by moms.

SUBHEAD: Breastfeeding “formula”

Breastfeeding is widely considered by experts to be the healthiest and most natural way to feed a child. But, that shouldn’t suggest that it’s easy. For some, the process can be a lot harder than serving a convenient bottle of commercially prepared infant formula which has been advertised to have vitamins and nutrients useful for children. They may not have the antibodies of breast milk but they can satisfy a baby’s appetite without putting moms through the hardships that often accompany breastfeeding.

The process of lactation, after all, is complex. It is an elaborate symphony of sensory impulses and hormonal reactions which tells a body to start producing milk (because of pregnancy) and continue production (in response to frequent and efficient milk removal.) Among the basic principles governing it is the idea that so long as a mother continues to breastfeed, her body will likely continue to produce milk.

According to Dr. Mapua, a lot of elements can disrupt this ideally harmonious operation. And, when they do, that can lead to difficulties that make breastfeeding unattractive.

Anatomical conditions, she says, are among them. Some mothers simply do not have the physical capacity to produce a sufficient supply of breast milk. There are also those who don’t produce any at all. Others, meanwhile, have undergone medical or cosmetic breast-related procedures that make lactation difficult if not impossible.

Environmental factors also impede proper lactation. Stress for instance can be a problem. “Stress inhibits oxytocin, the hormone that is there for milk ejection,” Dr. Mapua says. And to breastfeeding mothers, that can come from a variety of factors: the pressure to produce milk, concern for her baby’s health, the list can go on. This is why some mothers who want to breastfeed can require mental health support from loved ones, licensed professionals and breastfeeding support groups. This is also the reason why partners of lactating moms are encouraged to shoulder some of her day-to-day responsibilities while she focuses on feeding.

To Dr. Mapua, however, one of the worst impediments to successful breastfeeding is misinformation. Up to this day, there are many myths about the process that can lead to the failure of one’s feeding goals. For example, there are mothers with misinformed breastfeeding methods. There are some, she says, who do not know that they have to pump or express their milk in between feedings to create a personal milk bank they can tap when needed and encourage their body to continue milk production. There are also moms who don’t have proper technique. This could lead to a poor latch and that can cause inefficient milk removal or injury which, in turn, can lead to cases like mastitis. A poor latch can also cause unnecessary pain.

This too, is a common subject of misinformation. As Dr. Mapua states, many mothers are led to believe that pain (especially the protracted kind) is natural in breastfeeding. As a result, some moms would just bear with it instead of seeking the help of a specialist. That shouldn’t be, she stresses.

“Majority of cases suggest that pain is not normal,” she shares. “It could mean that there’s something going on.” But a mother, she says, may never know for sure unless she seeks help from experts.

“They don’t have to endure pain,” she declares. “They just need help and good advice.”

They also need to be easy on themselves, she adds. Sometimes, moms who wish to breastfeed fail to achieve their feeding goals. Because of this, they can get discouraged from trying again or they feel bad over their perceived failures. As a mom, Dr. Mapua normally tries to lift their spirits up by reminding them that every parenting journey is different. And, for those who failed to breastfeed a child but wish to try again for their next kid, she has good news.

“I tell them that there are studies suggesting that mothers tend to have more milk for their second baby compared to their first because the body has long-term memory,” she says. “The mammary glands, they form long-term memory during pregnancy. They remember what they need to do so they produce more milk.”

In other words, this discussion returns to the subject of adaptability. This trait is what makes breast milk attractive but it isn’t just an attribute of breast milk per se. It is also a human quality. It is, after all, the body which adapts, alters the milk’s composition to satisfy pressing needs.

In essence, breast milk, according to experts, is good because it can be a platform to express the human capacity to adapt. And, that is a quality with proven merit. The ability to change when needed is the reason why the human race manages to respond adequately to problems. It is the foundation of our capacity to greatly influence the state of the planet. It is also the reason why a global pandemic can happen, cause all sorts of problems but eventually leave many of us with the ability to claim that we are well.

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