Colostrum, the first secretion from the mammary glands after giving birth, is considered by health experts as the best gift a mother can give her newborn because of the immense benefits attached to it. But many women have unwittingly denied their babies the precious liquid. Martins Ifijeh writes

Nene Igwe’s last trimester during her first pregnancy came with a lot of advice from friends, in-laws and her mother, many of which were unsolicited. It was a time for everyone to remind her of how experienced they were in pregnancy and child bearing. After all, since they successfully nursed their own children out of infancy, they reasoned it won’t be out of place for her to toe the path they took during their own process.

While some of those advices were good for her, others ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous. For instance, she was told to give certain concoctions to her baby few days after delivery, as that would strengthen the child’s immune system. She was told the first food her child must take should be a certain type of formulae, because his or her sugar level needed to be boosted with it before breast milk was introduced. She was told once she had diarrhoea or fever, she should not bother to breastfeed her baby. They told her to have an alternative standby food with her just in case she might need it.

Igwe had small breasts, hence her friends told her not to think of giving her baby exclusive breast milk because she will not produce much of it since her breasts were small. In their minds, the size of the breast determines how much breast milk can be produced.

She was told by her mother to encourage the nurses to give her child little water immediately after delivery, since water is life. She was as well asked to include water in the baby’s food.

Most curiously, Igwe’s advisers were almost unanimous in telling her not to give the first milk from her breast (colostrum) to her baby, stating that it is usually dirty and unhealthy, and that it could lead to a child’s early death even before they leave the hospital. They said the yellowish fluid could pass as pus from injuries. They said only wicked mothers would give such to their new born babies.

Just as Igwe couldn’t stop the advices from coming, she unconsciously also couldn’t stop herself from being fascinated by some of them. Immediately after delivery, some of the wrong information started to play out.

First, she, her mother and even the health workers who took the delivery unanimously agreed that the child’s first food had to be formulae, because, to them, the child’s sugar level has to be boosted by it. They believed this approach would prepare the baby for breastfeeding.

About 30 minutes after delivery, her breast was heavy with colostrum. It was supposed to be a mother’s first gift to her child. “But I had to wash the thick and yellowish substance away. I had believed from the several advices I received that it was unhygienic; especially after seeing that it had the colour of pus. I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of giving such a substance to my child,” Igwe said.

“I started breastfeeding just after washing the colostrum off. Though I practised exclusive breastfeeding, I usually give water to the baby. I have heard on several occasions that water shouldn’t be given with breastfeeding, but since everyone I know gave water along with breastfeeding to their children who are all grown up and healthy, why shouldn’t I give my child same, after all, nothing can ever be wrong with water. Water is life,” she said.

Igwe is not the only woman who has been duped by such misinformation about breastfeeding and child bearing in general. Millions of Nigerian mothers, according to statistics, have done one form of disservice or the other to their little infants during weaning, which in the long run, turns into the makeup of the child’s life if he or she eventually survives infanthood.

Need for Colostrum
Colostrum, a yellowish fluid rich in antibodies and minerals that a mother’s breasts produce after giving birth, before the production of true milk, is very vital to the life of a newborn. It contains laxative effect, growth factors, and jaundice reduction factors, among other benefits.

Unsurprisingly, this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO), during the recently commemorated World Breastfeeding Week, emphasised the need for mothers to, as a matter of importance, give the first milk let-down to their newborns, as it comes with a number of benefits.

The world health body also called on the global community to advocate exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life, as this helps in early childhood development.

According to child health advocate, Dr. Eunice Idowu, the thick and yellowish substance, colostrum, is rich in antibodies and highly nutritious. Idowu says it would not only boost the child’s immunity but would also play a role in his or her health status and nutritional life afterwards.

She called on mothers to discard the myth that colostrum is not hygienic. “Most mothers are not aware of the importance of colostrum in the growth of their child. Colostrum is a major vaccine to an infant. It is the child’s first vaccine and immunisation. It does not only protect the infant against allergy and infections, it serves as a purgative which helps to clear meconium (the black tarry fetal stool he or she is born with). It also aids the growth of a child. It helps intestine to mature and it reduces severity of infection,” she said.

Idowu said health workers can also help in circulating the important message of colostrum to pregnant women accessing their facilities. “We know most of these things are not taught in medical schools, so stakeholders and the government should continue to train and retrain health workers, as they are very important to pregnant women and nursing mothers.”

Myths and Misconceptions
On other myths and misconceptions, like giving water to the infant just after delivery or along with breastfeeding during the first six months of life, she said the breast milk already contains enough water, noting that any extra water given would take the space of breast milk in the child’s stomach.

“The greatest barrier to achieving exclusive breastfeeding in Nigeria is water. If water can be taken out of the way, exclusive breastfeeding will record a huge success in the country,” she added.

Protective Effect
According to International Board Certified Lactation consultant, Anne Smith, every mother should realise that colostrum is the first food available for babies immediately after birth. Smith stated, “Colostrum contains lots of antibodies and helps protect vulnerable newborn from infection by coating his or her intestines and protecting them from viruses and bacteria. It also has a laxative effect which helps the child excrete meconium.

“It reduces the incidence of jaundice and contains growth factors that help prepare the child’s digestive system for absorbing and digesting milk. It is very easy for the newborn baby to digest, and is exactly what the baby needs to eat during the first days after birth.”

While stating that colostrum is an all-important first meal for a newborn, she said the thick yellowish food is different from mature milk in other ways as well. “It contains more salt and protein, and less sugar and fat than mature milk. It even looks different. It ranges in appearance from clear and watery to thick, yellowish and sticky,” Smith said. “Some expectant mothers find that they leak colostrum during pregnancy, while others are able to express only a drop or two. The amount of colostrum produced prenatally has no relationship to the amount of milk the mother will produce later on. Colostrum is very concentrated, and the volume produced is very small. It is just enough for the baby at the beginning of life before normal breast milk is given.”

Smith explained that even after giving colostrum to the baby, the subsequent milk produced by the woman during the first few days after delivery also contain a quantity of colostrum, adding that as the volume of milk increases, the protein content decreases and the amount of sugar and fat increases.

“The milk at this stage is referred to as the transitional milk, and it may look yellowish due to the colostrum content. The mature milk will contain lots of valuable antibodies and immune factors, but no more colostrum. That’s one reason that early breastfeeding is so important,” she said.

She added that if a mother started nursing her baby shortly after birth, it means that the mother is giving her newborn a precious gift that won’t be available to him or her later on.

Igwe’s story shows how influential close relations and friends can be in determining how much care an infant can get before, during, and after delivery. Experts believe that the more the myths and misconceptions about colostrum and breastfeeding, generally, are discouraged, the more value infants can get for living.