New moms worry a lot about their baby’s health. They wonder if their milk is all it’s cut out to be. Maybe they should give a little formula. Maybe some goat’s milk. The options that we have today only add to the worry because we wonder if we are making the right choice. Study after study tells us that our own milk is the best for our baby. Common sense does a pretty good job of telling us that as well. The problem is that when we are caring for our own newborn baby, we do not necessarily go through a rational thought process.
My good friend had a beautiful baby girl about a month ago and has called a number of times genuinely worried about her baby. Her baby is doing very well. Of course, it’s my friend’s job to worry because she’s the baby’s mother. That’s totally normal. I assured her that baby was fine and we reviewed the resources that she had in case something should go wrong. Days have passed and baby continues to thrive.
Vitamin D and Iron
In about two months my friend will call and wonder if she should give baby a vitamin and mineral supplement. Doctors worry most about baby’s intake of Vitamin D and iron. As a result, many people assume that human milk is deficient in these nutrients.
The root of the problem is not human milk itself. The problem is that the mother is low in Vitamin D or iron. Doctors generally think of the problem as a baby food problem and prescribe a supplement or add a new food to the diet to improve baby’s health. Breastmilk is so often deficient in Vitamin D and iron that doctors recommend a supplement as a matter of course.
Babies do need Vitamin D and iron and a food source or a supplement may be in order if mom’s milk is low and baby’s levels are low. Baby’s unique nutritional needs can be determined by a diligent doctor. But the diligent doctor should not stop with an analysis of baby’s needs. Baby’s needs are a window into the nutritional status of the mother. Supplemental nutrients for baby should in no way be the end of the story.
If mom is low in iron, she is likely to be sluggish and depressed. Improving her iron levels will improve both of those symptoms.
If mom is low in Vitamin D, there is also some of evidence that she will be depressed. Low Vitamin D status may play part of the role in Seasonal Affective Disorder.
If baby needs these nutrients in supplemental form, I’d bet the farm that mom needs them too. Fixing her own deficiency could make her postpartum experience that much easier and more pleasant.
Inevitably a friend will call and ask if she should supplement with milk from a cow or a goat because she is concerned that her milk is not good enough. It is amazing to me that a mother concerned about her own baby (who has probably already cut out fast food and sodas from her diet) would think that a goat might be eating better than she. Even a goat on an optimal diet — free to eat oak leaves, seed heads, and whatever is growing in my garden – would still be producing goat’s milk, not human milk.
A baby nursing on a mama will receive many more benefits than the Vitamin D or iron. A key example in the context of child health is the antibodies. When a baby is exposed to a virus, the act of breastfeeding exposes mom to that virus and mom’s body gets to work immediately creating antibodies. Mother Nature places the antibodies from the mama into the milk and those antibodies help baby fight off the virus. It’s pretty magical and something that a goat would have a hard time doing. (Though someone did tell me a story of a baby nursing directly from a goat. I haven’t seen such a case study in the nutrition literature, so it’s difficult to comment.
This key health benefit became more than academic to me when my son weaned and for the first time in his life, had an ear infection. He had a second infection a few months later.
I asked the doc “Why is he suddenly having this problem?”
“Preschool.” she responded.
“But preschool is not new. What’s different?”
The light bulb went off. “Ah-ha, that’s what’s different.”
Through my own milk, I was able to protect my son from illness for quite some time.
There are a lot of reasons a mom may need to find another milk source, but if the reason is her concern over her diet, it seems to me far better to fix her diet than to find a goat on its own optimal diet – eating up someone’s garden more than likely.
If baby’s iron levels are low, an iron supplement is probably in order for mom (a doctor could confirm easily with a hemoglobin or ferritin test). Eating iron-rich foods is certainly in order and is a good strategy in general for women in their child-bearing years. Baby probably ought to supplement too in this case but my point is that we often forget about mom.
If baby’s Vitamin D status is poor, the good news is that a small bit of sunbathing will help. The strongest predictor of your Vitamin D status is actually your sun exposure. To improve your status, remove your sleeves and put on shorts and get some sun on your skin. As a fair person myself I can go overboard quickly, but I am generally safe with a half hour of sun bathing to relax my body and to make Vitamin D.
You can also increase Vitamin D in your diet with cod liver oil, fatty fish, and egg yolks from hens allowed to range free and eat bugs.
There is a great deal of discussion in the nutrition literature about how much Vitamin D you need. The deficiency is quite common (which is why the deficiency in breast milk is common). Researchers argue that the recommended intake is far too low for both pregnant women and for the general population.
As moms improve their own nutrient levels, her milk levels will increase. Baby is generally first in line for our food nutrients. Mom will be second in line and hopefully will begin to improve her own nutrient levels. If she struggles with depression, her own mental health is likely to improve — the key reason doctors should not simply give baby a food supplement.
When baby is low, don’t assume that it is because breast milk as a product is at fault. Assume that mom can work more to optimize her own milk and, in the process, optimize her own health.