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Scary Cool Facts You Probably Didn’t Know About Human Milk

by Oct 29, 2021Education0 comments

With Halloween fast approaching, I thought it would be fun to unmask some little known truths about human milk that are so weird they seem more like science fiction than science fact. While all of these facts definitely have a wow factor on the believe it or not scale, I promise you these sweet little trivia bites are 100% true according to the latest research. My sources include medical and government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control, the US Department of Women’s Health, American Pediatric Association and the World Health Organization. Articles from universities like University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins. It also included information from breast/chestfeeding sites like Medela, one of the top breast pump companies in the world and Milky-Mama, a site dedicated to lactation support founded by an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and obstetric nurse. 

So, ready to find out just how amazing Mother Nature truly is when it comes to feeding? Then keep reading and add some useful information to your day.

Up first…

Human milk is alive. That’s right. Alive.

 It is considered a living liquid. This means it essentially behaves like a living thing by responding to stimuli. It evolves and changes throughout the feeding years and even during a single feed. There are millions of living cells per milliliter of fluid. Millions! Aside from ingredients you expect to find like vitamins, minerals, carbs, proteins etc. There are tons of other non-nutritional ingredients needed for growth and development that people don’t realize are being passed to their baby each time they feed. Human milk contains stem cells to help the newborn body build and repair itself by transforming into other cells such as liver, fat, brain or bone cells. White blood cells, called leukocytes, help protect the baby from infections. Hormones, enzymes, antibodies and growth factors to help regulate and encourage proper development, are also present in human milk.  And, these are just a few of the thousands of known components that cannot be artificially recreated in a lab.

Speaking of being alive, human milk is constantly changing to meet the needs of the baby. 

When a baby is born, their first milk isn’t really milk at all. It’s called colostrum and it packs a wallop! It is made up mostly of water and protein. In fact, colostrum contains double the amount of protein as mature milk. This first milk provides the foundation to activate the gastrointestinal tract, to help it prepare to process nourishment that must first be ingested before it can be used by the body. It also contains the baby’s first protection against disease by passing on antibodies from the parent. The liquid they are receiving is mostly there to keep them hydrated and healthy while getting their bodies ready for mature milk. Within days, the mature milk comes in and it too is ever changing. Mature milk starts out watery and low in fat at the beginning of each feed in order to quench thirst and provide needed carbohydrates and proteins. Then, towards the end of the feed it becomes creamy and fatty to provide babies the energy and calories they need to grow. Unlike the milk we buy at the store, when you look at cold human milk in the fridge you can see that it separates. What you will see is the fatty milk floating on top of the watery milk looking very much like heavy cream sitting on top of cloudy water. Cool huh?

 And did you know that human milk is different depending on the age and gender of the baby that is nursing? 

Changing to meet the needs of babies also includes being both age AND sex specific. If the new baby is a male, the milk will have more calcium, more protein and more fat compared to milk produced for a female baby, because males have higher bone density and greater muscle mass than females. If the baby is premature, the milk will have higher levels of everything compared to milk produced for a full term baby, because the younger baby needs more nutrients in order to survive. Milk for a 3 month old has a completely different composition than milk for a 12 month old. Studies have also found that those nursing female babies produce about 25% more milk than those with male babies. It is thought that this occurs because female babies on average tend to nurse for longer and eat more during each feed than male babies.

And that’s not all.

Not only is human milk age and gender specific, it is also time of day specific.

Who knew that milk production is affected by when it is produced. Imagine all those nights when parents who pump were using milk pumped during the day with their bedtime bottles, only to end up with a baby that is wide awake and ready to play because the milk gave them a pick me up. 

How amazing is Mother Nature? Since new babies are not yet able to self regulate sleep and wake cycles, she has built in a system to encourage wakefulness during the day and sleepiness at night. Milk produced during daylight hours has increased hormones that send signals to perk baby up and give them energy for the day. Milk produced during the night has been shown to have increased levels of melatonin, tryptophan and serotonin – all of which are known to be factors in bringing on drowsiness. So be sure to label expressed milk with the date and time to ensure you are not sabotaging yourself.

My last scary cool fact about human milk is also one of my favorites from a parent and educator standpoint:  The flavor and color of human milk changes based on what the parent eats.

Many people don’t know that the preparation for milk production is actually started during pregnancy. What one eats during pregnancy and the nursing years provides the first flavors that baby will ever know. The foods you eat can result in milk that is not only white, but also yellow (hence the term “liquid gold”), green, blue or pink. Just depends on fruits, vegetables and processed foods you are eating and in what amounts. Remember how everyone says to eat healthy because you are eating for two? Well it turns out that as early as 8 weeks gestation babies can begin to develop their flavor palette. The foods that are consumed by the birthing person “flavor” the amniotic fluid, thus giving your unborn baby a sort snapshot of what foods are to come. I won’t get into the details of it all, but this explains how babies of different ethnic groups are able to enjoy the foods of their home cultures and may reject foods that do not fit the cultural norms. They have been pre-programmed (so to speak) by getting the mild flavor profile of home from the very beginning through everything that their parents ate. Does this mean that your child love vanilla ice cream because you ate it every day for nine months? No, but it does mean that your child will be more likely to accept new foods that you ate often when you were pregnant and nursing. It does mean that babies whose parents had a well rounded and balanced diet of whole foods are generally less picky eaters, because they have been exposed to a variety of flavors even before getting their first official taste of people food.

Several studies have been conducted in the field of fetal and baby olfaction, the most famous one being the carrot juice study by Dr. Julie Mennella, which discovered babies show a marked preference for foods that the parent consumed during pregnancy and/or nursing. Further studies through the years have shown that babies actually seem to enjoy the taste of garlic, vanilla and cinnamon as evidenced by being more eager to eat and emptying the breast faster during a session when higher levels of these flavors were clearly evident in the parent’s system at the time of feeding. What’s great is that since these changes are evident in milk as well as amniotic fluid, you have the power to make changes to your diet for as long as you are nursing and your baby will benefit.

I don’t know about you, but discovering these insane truths about human milk and how awesomely prepared the body is to provide for a baby, totally make nursing seem way cooler.

I mean, human milk is ALIVE!

It is affected by and responds to its environment. Everything from what you eat, to who you feed and when you feed has an effect. I can see why the phrase goes, “Breast is best”.

Now even with all these cool facts being said, I know that some people cannot or do not wish to breast/chestfeed your baby. Here at The Nesting Place, the belief is that FED is best. I support all types of feeding as long as you and your baby are thriving.  My goal with this post is to share some amazing fun facts about human milk that the vast majority of people probably don’t know. Heck, I work with lactating people often and I didn’t know these things until I sat down to do the research. The more we share knowledge and the more we share evidence about what is going on, the better we all are. And that’s what it’s all about right?

Happy Feeding, Everyone… however you do it.