Exclusive breastfeeding, or use of human milk without dilution, in early life is crucial to the survival and wellbeing of an infant. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, yet only 40% of infants worldwide receive this treatment. Malnutrition is linked to one third of child mortality under the age of five years. Much of this can be attributed to improper feeding in the first year of life
Breastfeeding can prevent illness, even after feeding has ended. In the short-term, breastfeeding has been shown to decrease the risk of diarrheal morbidity, respiratory infection, ear infection, and infant mortality. In the long-term, breastfeeding is associated with a lower risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and a host of other ailments.
Breastfeeding is associated with higher scores on intelligence tests and higher educational achievement. A 2015 meta-analysis concluded that subjects who had been breastfed displayed higher gray matter volume in the left and right parietal and left temporal lobes than subjects that had not been breastfed. During perception tasks, subjects that had been breastfed exhibited more activation in the temporal lobes and the right frontal lobe. During language tasks, they exhibited more activation in the left temporal lobe. One study found that subjects that had been breastfed for 6 months or more scored higher on cognitive tests at the age of 68 years. This evidence strongly suggests that breastfeeding affects brain development. Studies show that breastfeeding is associated with higher income later in life.
Breast milk and colostrum contain a high concentration of antibodies that allow the infant to utilize passive immunity and develop and diversify their gut microbiota. The antibodies that infants receive from breastmilk equips the infant for their environment, possessing immunological memory from the mother. The diversification of the gut microbiota has implications on the neurodevelopment of the infant. Infants have a sterile digestive tract before birth; breastfeeding is one of the first and most important steps to colonizing the gut. The human microbiota encompasses the trillions of microbes that live in our body and are crucial to our survival, with communication pathways to the autonomic nervous system, the enteric nervous system, the neuroendocrine system, and the immune system. Therefore, the body’s gut microflora can alter fat storage, energy balance, barrier function, inflammation, stress reactivity, and general behavior in humans. The health and diversity of one’s gut flora has implications on metabolism, emotional and sensory processing, and micronutrient synthesis. Animal models have demonstrated that alterations in gut flora can affect emotion and brain biochemistry.
The consumption of breastmilk in early life allows for the colonization of the infant’s microbiota, a crucial step during the beginning of life, not just for survival, but for long-term health as well.
Julia Doo, Maternova research analyst
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Assessing the global status of maternal and neonatal health in 2020 presents a varied, albeit alarming, view of the lives of mothers and newborns around the world. The socioeconomic strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, moreover, has caused upticks in adult and child malnutrition, leading experts to predict a rise in maternal and neonatal mortality this year.