Think about the most magical liquid you have ever interacted with. Does your brain drift to something alcoholic? Is it water? Or something more technical and hydraulic-y and tech-specific? Few people may land upon breastmilk. But this humble substance has hidden, mystical properties. This food source does more than sustain: it is the Vishnu of multi-tasking – stimulating the baby’s gastronomic tract, promoting the child’s metabolic efficiency and immune system, and helping the mother lose weight and reduce the risk of cancers and anemia, all at once. Did you know that breastmilk changes its composition to suit the baby’s needs? And contains more than 700 types of bacteria? And that newborns can touch a surface contaminated with germs, then return to their mother, at which point, the mother’s skin picks up on what germs the grubby one has brought back, and her body produces antibodies in the breastmilk to help the child combat those germs? Newborns often spit up, and parents believe this is a normal step of feeding. However, it is because their stomachs are the size of marbles, and cannot stretch. In the first few days after birth, the mother produces colostrum, which is thick, yellow, packed with the appropriate nutrients and antibodies, and the perfect amount for that marble-sized stomach. Breastmilk can do all of these incredible things because it co-evolved with human beings to ensure that our newborns were provided with the most essential biological tools when they are the most vulnerable.
Today marks the end of the UN’s World Breastfeeding Week. You might not have heard about it, since it is not a campaign aimed at US audiences. People generally assume that women – especially poor, marginalized women – all breastfeed anyways. However, the topic, like for American mothers, is not simple. To breastfeed, all women need support immediately after birth, and in public spaces and national policy later on. In addition, new mothers should be protected from misinformation and unregulated marketing for breastmilk substitutes. Currently, barely 1 in 3 babies are exclusively breastfeed for the first six months, and few countries meet all of the UN’s suggested regulations to support mothers in this practice. (However, this writer also feels it important to state her belief that this issue has no space for judgement. The best practitioners can do is ensure that information and agency is provided to mothers, and not shame any individuals for substituting with formula every now and then, particularly after the 6-month mark.)
Maternal health, in general, has become such a touted topic, and is a global issue that easily generates broad support (though sometimes little action) from diverse stakeholders. But why? Why do practitioners pour focus and dollars and research into such a narrow demographic? An answer may lie in how babies are perceived – as a public commodity, a precious resource that will become the drivers of a nation’s future. People also care about maternal health because women unproportionally die preventable deaths, as victims of poor governance and health systems. Promoting the health of these two vulnerable populations ensures a strong foundation for the next generation, and is the most effective prevention strategy for a wide range of health issues. A poor start has a lifetime of consequences. If the mother has been anemic during pregnancy, her baby will be born with empty iron stores. Sufficient folic acid in the first 28 days of life ensures the healthy development of the brain and spinal cord. If a child does not fill their iodine quota within the first two years of life, they will never make up that deficit, and may need treatment for slowed mental growth in the future. If a mother is overweight or gains too much weight during pregnancy, she can potentially transfer a predisposition towards obesity to her infant. So we continue to discuss maternal and child health because it is an essential component in ensuring the healthy development of individuals, and plants the seeds towards a generation of healthy, happy and productive citizens, who can live to their full potential. And breastfeeding, one of the most important interventions for saving children’s lives, is a key piece to guaranteeing this healthy start.
QUIZ TIME! Aside from breastfeeding, what else do you know about maternal health? Test your smarts here: