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What is Breast Milk?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Breast milk is a liquid produced by a human mother after childbirth. Its primary purpose is to feed her newborn infant, but a lactating mother can also continue to feed other infants or harvest breast milk after her own infant has been weaned. While many animals produce milk, when a person refers to a substance as breast milk, it is safe to assume that he or she means human breast milk, as the milk of other animals is always referred to with the name of the animal that produced it. It is typical for human children to breast feed for at least the first six months of their lives, although many feed longer.

The appearance and composition of the liquid produced by human breasts changes after the delivery of a baby. At first, the liquid is thin and yellow, rich in protein, and high in antibodies. After three or four days, the milk becomes thin and watery, providing additional minerals and sugars. Later on, the milk becomes thicker and creamier. These stages of lactation all serve important functions when it comes to infant growth and health, as well as providing benefits to the mother.

Many mothers experience significant anxiety about breast milk. A woman may not produce enough milk for her baby, or worry that the nutritional content of her milk is not enough for her child. She may experience blockage that prevents her from breast feeding, or it may become painful to feed her child due to infection. All of these problems can be addressed by modern medicine and are usually easily solved by a doctor.

It is possible for a mother to receive milk for her child from milk banks if, for some reason, she cannot produce enough. Infant formula is also sometimes used in these cases, although this is known to be a less desirable replacement for human breast milk. A mother may also need to seek alternative milk sources if her milk has unwanted substances in it, such as nicotine or certain other drugs.

Using a breast pump to harvest milk can not only be useful for saving milk for later, it can also work to stimulate the mother to produce additional milk. If pumping is continued or the child is not weaned, a mother can lactate for many years. Many alternative medicine practitioners as well as some gourmands have advocated the use of breast milk for adult consumption. Milk for these purposes is purchased from mothers who no longer need their milk for their children. While there is some evidence that breast milk can help adults heal from certain disorders, this is not a common method of treatment, and the effectiveness of the therapy is questionable.

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Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Sep 15, 2014

@pastanaga - I don't know if the differences between formula and breast milk are all that great these days anyway. I'm sure there are some kinds of antibodies and things that babies can still only get from breast milk, but mostly they will be fine on formula.

By pastanaga — On Sep 14, 2014

@Iluviaporos - I agree that women shouldn't be made to feel guilty if they physically can't breast feed their infant. But the pro-breast movement is the result of companies spending years promoting infant formulas that are more expensive and less nutritious, and basically fooling young mothers into thinking breast milk wasn't the superior food.

When you add that to the fact that breast feeding in public tends to be vilified in a lot of places, you end up with a society where women just don't hear about the advantages of breast milk, when it's possible to use it.

By lluviaporos — On Sep 14, 2014

It's a shame that breast milk has had to become such a hot button topic recently. It causes a lot of anxiety to women who simply can't feed their babies by breast.

My mother told me once she felt horribly guilty over stopping my youngest sister from breast feeding after three months, instead of the recommended six, but that she had developed her teeth early and the process was extremely painful. My mother tried to express the milk but that didn't work well and storing breast milk is difficult.

The thing is, if it can't happen, it can't happen. It might be the best thing for all children to grow up existing on a nutritionally perfect diet, but that's not going to happen either. And I don't think it's worth the anxiety and guilt that women feel when they can't measure up to a high standard through no fault of their own.

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