Below are four common digestive issues that affect babies, and how breastfeeding can reduce their severity.
It’s good to remember that although breastfed babies do tend to feed and may soil diapers more frequently than their formula-fed counterparts, it’s because babies can more easily digest and process breast milk. Because of the special composition of highly digestible fats and proteins, as well as the probiotics and natural cultures found in breast milk, babies can digest breast milk efficiently and actually produce less bulk waste by volume than they do when fed formula. With less bulk waste in a baby’s digestive system, it’s less likely that waste will become thickened or impacted, resulting in constipation and the formation of gas in the intestines. Breastfed babies can experience gas and constipation, but it happens more frequently in formula-fed babies because of the suboptimal digestibility of formula.
Commonly, air that babies swallow while feeding is called “gas”, which is not exactly the same thing as the methane-type gas produced in the gut that comes out as flatulence. Breastfed infants are not immune to some amount of air-swallowing, especially during early weeks while they are still learning to latch on to the breast properly. However, feeding a baby directly from the breast provides less opportunity for a baby to suck in air than bottle feeding does, if only because the areolar tissue is more pliable and is an easier surface for a baby to create a good suction and seal than that of an artificial nipple. Breastfed infants get more nutrition and less indigestible bulk matter than those who are fed formula, so there is less opportunity for the chemical processes to occur in the intestines that produce gas in a baby’s digestive tract. Infant gas problems that occur during breastfeeding are also easier to target and eliminate, as they are usually due to some particular food in the mother’s diet, as opposed to a harder to identify ingredient in baby formula. Most breastfeeding mothers can enjoy a wide variety of food without causing any digestive upset for their babies, but there are a few foods known to produce digestive discomfort in breastfed babies. If a baby begins experiencing excessive gas not due to latching problems or insufficient burping, it can help to review a list of foods known to cause fussiness or allergic reactions in babies.
Colic is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “crying with no apparent cause”, and is sometimes used as a “catch-all” diagnostic term for infant distress. Proper clinical identification aside, pediatricians often address colic with interventions that are intended to alleviate digestive problems like gas and constipation. Colic is usually treated at home by comforting babies and giving them over-the-counter pain relievers, gas drops, gripe water, or laxatives. Generally speaking, breastfed babies are supposed to be fed frequently and “on-demand”, which in itself serves to reduce crying and fussiness by providing the baby with food, comfort, and close contact with mother. Adding the overall comforting ability of breastfeeding to its reduction of potential digestive problems, colic is significantly less likely to occur in breastfed infants. Colicky reactions in babies do happen, and they are often associated with foods in the mother’s diet. Certain foods are known to produce colic symptoms in breastfed babies, and can be eliminated from the mother’s diet if these symptoms persist. Sometimes, breastfeeding mothers may confuse cluster feeding, a period of intense nursing usually associated with a growth spurt, for colic. Cluster feeding normally last a few days to a week, and is often best resolved by simply feeding the baby on-demand, even if that demand is temporarily higher than normal.
This may not sound like a serious advantage, but it is one that any person who has had to change and dispose of diapers can genuinely appreciate. The odor of a breastfed baby’s bowel movement smells less like that of an adult, and more like fresh buttermilk. Even as the baby grows and starts eating complimentary solid food, the probiotics found in breast milk help ensure thorough digestion, usually resulting in more frequent bowel movements. Breastfed babies have an abundance of healthy gut bacteria because of the cultures and probiotics contained in breast milk, resulting in minimal fecal odor. This is a good thing for breastfeeding mothers, who may have to change diapers a bit more frequently than mothers who feed their babies formula.
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