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What Is Breast Milk?

Women produce breast milk after the birth of a baby.
A breast pump.
Breast feeding provides a nutrient-rich diet for newborns and has many health benefits for the mother, as well.
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  • Written By: Tara Barnett
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 15 August 2014
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Breast milk is a liquid produced by a human mother after childbirth. Its primary purpose is to feed her newborn infant, but a lactating mother can also continue to feed other infants or harvest breast milk after her own infant has been weaned. While many animals produce milk, when a person refers to a substance as breast milk, it is safe to assume that he or she means human breast milk, as the milk of other animals is always referred to with the name of the animal that produced it. It is typical for human children to breast feed for at least the first six months of their lives, although many feed longer.

The appearance and composition of the liquid produced by human breasts changes after the delivery of a baby. At first, the liquid is thin and yellow, rich in protein, and high in antibodies. After three or four days, the milk becomes thin and watery, providing additional minerals and sugars. Later on, the milk becomes thicker and creamier. These stages of lactation all serve important functions when it comes to infant growth and health, as well as providing benefits to the mother.

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Many mothers experience significant anxiety about breast milk. A woman may not produce enough milk for her baby, or worry that the nutritional content of her milk is not enough for her child. She may experience blockage that prevents her from breast feeding, or it may become painful to feed her child due to infection. All of these problems can be addressed by modern medicine and are usually easily solved by a doctor.

It is possible for a mother to receive milk for her child from milk banks if, for some reason, she cannot produce enough. Infant formula is also sometimes used in these cases, although this is known to be a less desirable replacement for human breast milk. A mother may also need to seek alternative milk sources if her milk has unwanted substances in it, such as nicotine or certain other drugs.

Using a breast pump to harvest milk can not only be useful for saving milk for later, it can also work to stimulate the mother to produce additional milk. If pumping is continued or the child is not weaned, a mother can lactate for many years. Many alternative medicine practitioners as well as some gourmands have advocated the use of breast milk for adult consumption. Milk for these purposes is purchased from mothers who no longer need their milk for their children. While there is some evidence that breast milk can help adults heal from certain disorders, this is not a common method of treatment, and the effectiveness of the therapy is questionable.

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