Breastfeeding: Why colostrum avoidance must be shunned by mothers

Lactation experts have described colostrum – the first breast milk a woman produces after childbirth as the most important food a newborn must be fed with before the normal breast milk starts flowing.

They noted that it is the most ideal nourishment for a newborn as it is highly concentrated with nutrients.

The experts noted that though the flow of colostrum does not last long, a little of it when ingested by a baby, goes a long way to enhance a child’s growth and development.

Based on this, they urged mothers to shun colostrum avoidance and to put their newborns to breasts not long after delivery.

According to the Journal of Neonatal Nursing, Volume 29, Issue 1, colostrum avoidance is highly practised with 1 in 5 breastfeeding mothers discarding colostrum for certain traditional reasons.

“Lack of counselling on colostrum feeding and poor knowledge about colostrum were the contributing factors for colostrum avoidance practice. Maternal counselling regarding the importance of colostrum feeding to their baby should be strengthened,” the journal advised.

According to the World Health Organisation and the United Nations International Children’s Fund, colostrum is recommended within the first hour of delivery of a newborn.

A Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Epe General Hospital, Epe, Lagos, Dr. Cynthia Okafor, said about two-thirds of the cells in colostrum are white blood cells that guard against infections a few hours after birth.

She noted that the composition of colostrum is different from normal breast milk as it is designed to take care of certain needs for a newborn, adding that it is thicker and yellowish in colour.

Dr. Okafor, who said colostrum is also rich in immunologic components and growth factors which stimulate the development of protective mucus membranes in a baby’s intestines, noted that the prebiotics in colostrum feed and build up the ‘good’ bacteria in the baby’s gut.

She further said colostrum helps to prevent jaundice as well as protect against stomach upsets by acting as a laxative that makes the newborn easily defecate everything ingested while in the womb.

“A baby is born with high levels of red blood cells, which take oxygen around the body, and when these cells break down, the liver helps to process them, creating a by-product called bilirubin, which can lead to jaundice if the baby’s liver does not process it well,” she added.

Also, a nutritionist and a professor at the Department of Nursing Science, University of Calabar, Cross River State, Professor Mary Mgbekem said colostrums is the first and the best food a child eats after birth.

She noted that the colostrum contains the best nutrition a child needs in life and disapproved of traditional practices that tend to deny the babies access to colostrum on the basis that it is dirty.

She said, “Colostrum is the best form of food the baby would have. It’s rich in different nutrients, yet ignorance makes some people not feed their babies with colostrums.

“Some of them say colostrum is dirty because of its yellowish colour and for that reason, they spill it and wait for the normal breast milk.”

“Nutritionists are the advocates of exclusive breastfeeding. We insist on breast milk for the first 1000 days of a baby and to ensure that babies are exclusively fed for at least six months before adding any other baby formula.”

A Lagos-based Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist, Olusola Malomo, said, “Colostrum is more than the first milk your baby consumes after birth. It’s highly concentrated with nutrients and antibodies to fight infection and protect your baby. It provides a powerful, unique immunity.

“It is produced in small amounts, about 40–50 ml on the first day, which is all that an infant needs at a time. Colostrum is rich in white blood cells and antibodies, especially sIgA, and it contains a larger percentage of protein, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins (A, E and K) than later milk.”

A lactation expert at the University of Western Australia, Professor Peter Hartmann, said, “White blood cells contained in the colostrum, which babies are fed within the first few days of their lives, are important as far as immune responses are concerned. They provide protection and challenge pathogens.”

He said colostrum is rich in a crucial antibody called sIgA, adding, “This protects your baby against disease, not by passing into his bloodstream, but by lining his gastrointestinal tract.

“Molecules that have provided an immune defence against infection in the mother are transported in her blood to the breast, join together to form sIgA, and are secreted into her colostrums.”

“This sIgA becomes concentrated in the mucus lining of the baby’s gut and respiratory system, protecting him against illnesses the mother has already experienced.”

Speaking on how colostrum is formed, a Senior Matron at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Teaching Hospital, Mrs. Joy Mbonu, said pregnancy hormones manufactured by the placenta help in the development of colostrum in the mother’s breasts.

She said that colostrum helps to strengthen the baby’s immune system and establish a healthy gut by coating the intestines, which keeps harmful bacteria from being absorbed and offers ideal nutrition for the baby.

On the Vitamins and minerals in colostrum, she said, “Vitamin A is important for a baby’s vision and its deficiency is a major cause of blindness worldwide.

“Babies are usually born with low reserves of vitamin A, so colostrum helps in making up for the deficit. Those first three days or so are a crucial time for establishing breastfeeding.”

The matron noted that colostrum is also rich in magnesium, which supports the baby’s heart and bones; copper and zinc help to develop a strong immune system.

“Zinc also aids in brain development, and there’s nearly four times more zinc in colostrum than in mature milk,” she added.

The WHO and UNICEF jointly recommend colostrum feeding immediately after childbirth.

They stressed that early initiation of breastfeeding, within one hour of birth, protects the newborn from acquiring infections and reduces newborn mortality.

The two UN bodies noted that the risk of mortality due to diarrhoea and other infections can increase in infants that are partially breastfed or not breastfed at all.

They said exclusive breastfeeding for six months has many health benefits for the infant and mother, noting that chief among these is protection against gastrointestinal infections, which is observed not only in developing but also in industrialised countries.

“Breast milk is also a critical source of energy and nutrients during illness, and reduces mortality among children who are malnourished. Children and adolescents who were breastfed as babies are less likely to be overweight or obese.

“Additionally, they perform better on intelligence tests and have higher school attendance. Breast milk is also an important source of energy and nutrients in children aged 6–23 months. It can provide half or more of a child’s energy needs between the ages of six and 12 months, and one-third of energy needs between 12 and 24 months,” they stated.


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