Breastfeeding is flavor learning.

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is flavor learning.

Through mother’s milk, human infants are “exposed to a bewildering variety of flavors that influence subsequent liking and choice.” [Beauchamp & Menella]

Differently, baby milk substitutes (BMS) or baby formulas offer static flavor. Formula manufacturers are only able to add flavoring to follow-on formulas at which point, it is too late to stimulate flavor detection, explains Dr. Julie Menella.

A breastfed baby experiences textural variations such as viscosity and mouth coating so “breastfeeding provides an even richer variation in oral sensory stimulation,” as recorded in Flavor Perception in Human Infants.

Before birth, flavor learning begins around the sixth month of gestation when the fetus begins to inhale and swallow amniotic fluid marking its first chemosensory experiences. [Thomas, 2022

Photo by Amina Filkins

The flavors a baby is exposed to signal things like the flavors of one’s culture, which foods are safe to eat, and biodiversity which later impacts food choice thereby affecting overall health and wellness. 

Mennella makes clear, “breastfeeding confers greater acceptance of healthy foods…only if they are part of the mothers’ diet…” 

One study which looked at the effects of maternal garlic ingestion on the odor of milk and the suckling behavior of the infant, found that the nursling detected changes in mother’s milk and stayed attached to the breast for longer periods of time, sucked more when the milk smelled like garlic, and tended to ingest more milk.  

Similar findings were noted when vanilla ingestion was investigated. 

Just as infants can detect the flavors of healthy and aromatic foods in their mother’s milk, they can also detect those of potentially harmful substances. For instance, Menella found that “infants can readily detect the flavor of alcohol in mother’s milk but…the decrease in consumption at the breast after maternal alcohol consumption is apparently not due to the infants rejecting the flavor of alcohol in their mothers’ milk.” 

It has also been found that babies can detect the flavors in cigarettes in breastmilk. Still, the researchers note, “We do not suggest that lactating women who smoke occasionally should stop nursing. However, the knowledge that the milk of mothers who smoke smells and may taste like cigarettes provides an additional reason to avoid smoking.”

Photo by Derek Owens

As artificial sweeteners gain prevalence in the food industry, Philip O. Anderson’s How Sweet It Is: Sweeteners in Breast Milk summarizes current knowledge regarding the transmission of sweeteners into human milk. 

Dr. Anne Eglash points out in a 2019 Clinical Question of the Week

There is preliminary research evidence that a maternal diet high in fructose may increase body weight and fat mass in breastfed infants. When mothers consume foods or beverages high in fructose, the level of fructose rises in breastmilk. This is not true for glucose, because maternal insulin rapidly normalizes the maternal glucose level after glucose ingestion. Insulin does not moderate the fructose level like it does for glucose.

Photo by Anglea Mulligan

And increasing sweetness of breastmilk via artificial or natural sweeteners in the maternal diet might predispose to later obesity. This may be partially mediated by an alteration in the gut microbiome by the sweeteners.”

As infants transition to complementary feeding at six months of age, the flavors they’ve already been exposed to in utero and through breastmilk will help them to explore a breadth of healthy table foods. While human milk is meant to be the primary staple of infants’ diets, human milk alone cannot provide everything babies need nutritionally, especially micronutrients like zinc and iron. [More on appropriate complementary feeding here— Food before one is NOT just for fun.]

Newer research is starting to investigate odor-active volatile compounds in preterm breastmilk and the effect of smell and taste of milk during tube feeding of preterm infants. Find some of those studies here, here, and here.

 

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As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, tell us:  Do you have a funny infant feeding story?

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.

Breastfeeding is part of a continuum. 

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is part of a continuum.

It has been hypothesized that starting around nine weeks of fetal development, the pattern and sequence of intrauterine movements of the fetus seem to be a survival mechanism, which is implemented by the newborn’s patterns of movement during the first hour after birth  (described as the 9 stages)  when skin-to-skin with the mother to facilitate breastfeeding.

Photo credit United States Breastfeeding Committee

This very behavior refutes the idea that breastfeeding is “an adjunct to birth” as it is generally viewed in maternity care settings in America.

Not only are human babies hardwired to progress through 9 stages and self attach to the breast, mammalian bodies are hardwired to produce milk too.

Around 16 weeks of pregnancy, the body starts to prepare for breastfeeding. This phase, called Lactogenesis I is when colostrum begins to be created. During Lactogenesis II, the secretion of copious milk follows the hormonal shift triggered by birth and the placenta delivery. After this phase, milk production must be maintained through a supply-and-demand-like system. [Neville 2001]

Even before a pregnancy is achieved, individuals are being influenced by the infant feeding culture that surrounds them, consciously or subconsciously laying a foundation for how they feel about feeding their own babies.

Pat Hoddinott’s, et al study found that women who had seen successful breastfeeding regularly and perceived this as a positive experience were more likely to initiate breastfeeding.

Exposure to prenatal breastfeeding education also affects breastfeeding outcomes. Irene M. Rosen and colleagues found that women who attended prenatal breastfeeding classes had significantly increased breastfeeding at 6 months when compared to controls.

Photo by Luiza Brain

Mode of birth and birth experiences influence infant feeding too, for both members of the dyad.

A growing body of evidence shows that birth by cesarean section is associated with early breastfeeding cessation.

Intrapartum exposure to the drugs fentanyl and synOT is associated with altered newborn infant behavior, including suckling, while in skin-to-skin contact with mother during the first hour after birth. [Brimdyr, et al 2019]

What’s more, the authors of Intrapartum Administration of Synthetic Oxytocin and Downstream Effects on Breastfeeding: Elucidating Physiologic Pathways found “No positive relationships between the administration of synthetic oxytocin and breastfeeding.” They comment, “Practices that could diminish the nearly ubiquitous practice of inducing and accelerating labor with the use of synthetic oxytocin should be considered when evaluating interventions that affect breastfeeding outcomes.”

Photo by Olivia Anne Snyder on Unsplash

In Transdisciplinary breastfeeding support: Creating program and policy synergy across the reproductive continuum, author Miriam Labbok takes a detailed look at “the power and potential of synergy between and among organizations and individuals supporting breastfeeding, the mother-child dyad, and reproductive health to increase sustainable breastfeeding support.”

Labbok points out that a paradigm shift on the issues in the reproductive continuum – family planning, pregnancy and birthing and breastfeeding– is needed.

“These are issues that are intimately, biologically, gender linked in women’s lives, and yet ones that are generally divided up to be addressed by a variety of different professional disciplines,” Labbok begins.  “Despite the impact of child spacing on birthing success, of birthing practices on breastfeeding success, and of breastfeeding on child spacing, we are offered family planning services by a gynecologist, birth attendance by an obstetrician or midwife, and baby care by a pediatrician. Having these ‘silos’ of care, each with its own paradigm and priorities, may lead to conflicting messages, and hence, may undermine the search for mutuality in goals, and collaboration.”

One such initiative looking to deconstruct siloed care is the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative which includes standards and goals for birthing practices, for breastfeeding-friendly communities, and guidance for birth spacing, in addition to reconfirming the original Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding, in recognition that breastfeeding occurs along a continuum.

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee

1,000 Days emphasizes how breastfeeding fits within the global picture as a crucial part of a whole.

In the U.S. context, the 1,000 Days initiative recognizes comprehensive health coverage, comprehensive guidelines on nutrition during pregnancy, lactation, and early childhood for women in the first 1,000 days, paid family  and medical leave policy for all workers, and investments to ensure parents and caregivers can access good nutrition as solutions to a well nation and a well world.

 

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As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, please share with us some or all of your birth stor(ies).

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.

For many, grandmothers are the village

Reflecting on her experience as a first-time grandmother, one of my colleagues and mentors expressed that, for most of us, “grandmothers are the closest thing to a village that we have.”

This colleague, a lactation care provider herself,  described the intricacies, sweetness and sacredness of watching her daughter step into motherhood. My colleague’s notes described her thoughtful presence without overbearance, leaving space for her daughter and her new family to learn and to bond. For instance, she cleans the house, prepares their bed with sun-dried sheets, and sits at the foot of the bed while her daughter and granddaughter nurse. In this dreamy scenario, grandma, baby and parents are all met with challenges, however those challenges haven’t become insurmountable thanks in part to this level of grandmotherly support and care.

This week we bring to you some work that details grandmothers’ powerful influence on the perinatal experience and beyond. A 2016 systematic review found that “a grandmother’s positive breastfeeding opinion had the potential to influence a mother up to 12 % more likely to initiate breastfeeding. Conversely a negative opinion has the capacity to decrease the likelihood of breastfeeding by up to 70 %.”

Healthy Children Project’s own Barbara O’Connor, RN, BSN, IBCLC, ANLC – Faculty Emerita designed and authored the Grandmothers’ Tea Project for the Illinois State Breastfeeding Task Force (2011).

Through O’Connor’s interactive curriculum, grandmothers are invited to learn about breastfeeding through three activities that pose breastfeeding scenarios:

“The Grandmothers’ Apron activity updates grandmothers’ knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding.

During the Grandmothers’ Cell Phone activity, grandmothers talk about breastfeeding myths and barriers.

In the Grandmothers’ Necklace activity, participants create a beaded necklace to remind them of ways they can offer support through loving encouragement, updating their breastfeeding knowledge, and being helpful.” (As described in A Grandmothers’ Tea: Evaluation of a Breastfeeding Support Intervention)

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

Author Jane S. Grassley, RN, PhD, IBCLC and colleagues encourage perinatal educators to explore the curriculum for A Grandmothers’ Tea as they found that grandmothers and mothers who attended the teas in their study enjoyed their interactions with one another and with the class content.

Their work also unearthed a phenomenon of defensiveness in grandmothers who did not breastfeed their own children. The authors explain  “Grandmothers who did not breastfeed may feel defensive about their infant-feeding decisions because of the current emphasis on the health benefits of breastfeeding (Grassley & Eschiti, 2007)”  and advise that “perinatal educators can invite grandmothers to share their experiences and validate the cultural context in which these experiences took place.”

In this realm of validation and healing, Midwife Andrea Ruizquez of Partera Midwifery explores the implications of the Mother Wound. On Partera Midwifery’s Instagram page, Ruizquez writes:

“Props to all the people navigating complicated mother child relationships as adults. Now that I am in my 40’s I find myself reconnecting with my own mother in a deeper way. There was a time when we were estranged from each other. I learned how to recognize that I needed boundaries and practiced maintaining them. I am learning not to get triggered by my mother’s ways, and have compassion for her reasons behind them. I extend this sentiment to all of my grandmas ancestors who are in my lineage.

I am having more compassion for myself, and the ways I am like her my mom. I am learning to love myself deeper and become a more conscious mama to my children. I am still learning to love my child self that did not get all of her needs met, and I reparent myself with love. I feel myself heal.”

Source: United States Breastfeeding Committee.

Cultural beliefs held by grandmothers have the potential to influence healthy infant feeding practices. In Grace Yee, Retired IBCLC and Tonya Lang’s, MPH, CHES, IBCLC  Cultural Dimensions in Promoting, Protecting, and Supporting Lactation in East Asian Communities, they explained the prominent roles of aunties and grandmothers in the early postpartum. One example includes how colostrum is sometimes regarded in older generations as impure or unhealthy. Yee and Lang suggest that instead of positioning tradition and culture as a hindrance, to reframe barriers to breastfeeding into potential strengths. Respect of elders’ traditions and cultural practices will establish trust and foster positive relationships, as noted in Monique Sims-Harper, DrPH, MPH, RD, IBCLC, Jeanette Panchula, RN PHN, BA-SW, and Patt Young’s, Health Educator, CLE work entitled It Takes A Village: Empowering Grandmothers as Breastfeeding Supporters.

The physiological imprint of breastfeeding withstands generations and the sensations of milk production may surface decades later as mothers become grandmothers. Grandmothers who have previously breastfed have reported the tingling sensation of a phantom milk release when holding their grandchildren.

In South Sudan, grandmothers are relactating to help manage severe acute malnutrition. This practice has been documented elsewhere like Natal, South Africa and Vietnam for example.

Barry Hewlett and Steve Winn’s study on allomaternal nursing indicates that while this practice occurs in many cultures, “it is normative in relatively few cultures; biological kin, especially grandmothers, frequently provide allomaternal nursing and that infant age, mother’s condition, and culture (e.g., cultural models about if and when women other than the mother can nurse an infant or colostrum taboos) impact the nature and frequency of allomaternal nursing.”

Photo by Наталия Игоревна from Pexels

For an illuminating anthropological perspective, read A Biocultural Study of Grandmothering During the Perinatal Period by Brooke A. Scelza and  Katie Hinde. Their “findings reveal three domains in which grandmothers contribute: learning to mother, breastfeeding support, and postnatal health and well-being” and “show that informational, emotional, and instrumental support provided to new mothers and their neonates during the perinatal period can aid in the establishment of the mother-infant bond, buffer maternal energy balance, and improve nutritional outcomes for infants.”

We would love to learn about your perinatal and infant feeding experiences as grandmothers or with grandmothers. If you’d like to share, please email us at info@ourmilkyway.org.