Breast Milk: Answers to the Common Questions

Definition, Stages, and Information About Human Breast Milk

Mother breastfeeding baby girl at home in New York City
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Breast milk is a liquid source of food made by a mother's breasts for her children. It's created in response to pregnancy and the suckling of a baby at the breast. Breast milk provides a child with complete nutrition, as well as protection against infections, diseases, and illnesses. Breastfeeding benefits mothers and children in a variety of ways, and many of the health benefits continue long after breastfeeding has ended.

What's in Breast Milk?

The composition of breast milk is complex. It consists of over 200 different substances, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, other nutrients, enzymes, and hormones. This composition isn't constant. It's different from mother to mother. It even varies within the same mother. Your breast milk will change during each feeding, from one feeding to another throughout the day, and over time to meet the needs of your growing child.

When Does Breast Milk Come In?

The production of breast milk begins during pregnancy. Then, when your baby is born, you will have a small amount of milk for the first day or two. By the third day after delivery, the production of breast milk increases and you should feel your breasts filling up as your breast milk "comes in." However, it could take longer - up to five days - for first-time moms to fill up with breast milk.

What are the Stages of Breast Milk?

Breast milk is typically discussed in three stages: colostrum, transitional breast milk, and mature breast milk.

Colostrum: Colostrum is the first breast milk. It's present at the end of pregnancy and during the first few days after the birth of your baby. It's usually thick, yellow and sticky, but it can also be thin and white or orange in color. Colostrum is easy for newborns to digest. It's high in protein, low in fat, and contains a high concentration of antibodies, specifically Immunoglobulin A (IgA), as well as white blood cells, to fight off infections.

It's also a natural laxative that helps prevent jaundice by clearing your baby's body of meconium: the first thick, black, tarry poop. The amount of colostrum that your body makes is small, but that small volume contains everything your new baby needs in the first few days of life.

Transitional Breast Milk: Transitional breast milk is a combination of colostrum and mature milk. When your breast milk begins to “come in” at approximately 3 to 5 days after delivery, it mixes with the colostrum and gradually transitions to mature milk over the course of a few days or a week.

Mature Breast Milk: Your milk will change over to mature breast milk by the time your baby is about two weeks old. Mature brest milk is a combination of foremilk and hindmilk. When your baby latches on to nurse, the first milk to flow out of your breast is foremilk. Foremilk is thin, watery, and lower in fat and calories. As you continue to breastfeed, the hindmilk will follow. Hindmilk is thicker, creamier, and higher in fat and calories.

Making Enough Breast Milk

Your body begins to make breast milk in response to pregnancy and delivery of your child. But, to continue to make breast milk after your baby is born, you have to breastfeed or pump your breast milk.

The more you breastfeed or pump, the more you'll be telling your body to make breast milk. Almost all mothers have the ability to make a healthy breast milk supply. So, if you're worried or struggling with a low milk supply, get help. Most of the time correcting the breastfeeding latch and breastfeeding more often can help turn it around and get things back on track.

What Color Is Breast Milk Supposed to Be?

The colors of breast milk can change throughout the day, or from one day to the next. It's usually white, yellow, or tinted blue. But, depending on what you eat, it could have a green, orange, brown or pink hue.

Occasionally, blood from rusty pipe syndrome or cracked nipples can appear in your breast milk. It may be scary, but it isn't dangerous. As long as your baby is not refusing the breast, it's safe to continue to breastfeed if your milk changes color.

How Does Breast Milk Taste?

Breast milk is described as sweet and creamy. It gets it sweetness from the milk sugar lactose, and it's creamy due to the amount of fat it contains. The foods that you eat each day as part of your breastfeeding diet will also contribute to the flavor of your breast milk.  

 

Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics. New Mother’s Guide To Breastfeeding. Bantam Books. New York. 2011.

Ballard, O., & Morrow, A. L. Human Milk Composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2013; 60 (1): 49–74: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002

Eidelman, A. I., Schanler, R. J., Johnston, M., Landers, S., Noble, L., Szucs, K., & Viehmann, L. Policy Statement. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Section on Breastfeeding. 2012. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-e841.

Lawrence, Ruth A., MD, Lawrence, Robert M., MD. Breastfeeding A Guide For The Medical Profession Eighth Edition. Elsevier Health Sciences. 2015.

Riordan, J., and Wambach, K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.

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