Giraffe with milk

Stuff: Milk

The number one must-have for all babies, yet there’s more to it than even I thought.

What is it?

Milk is used to feed babies exclusively for at least the first six months of their life, then is used as a complementary food as ‘solid food’ begins to slowly take over.

Breast milk is easiest by far, and can be acquired even if you don’t make your own for whatever reason – well recommended if you don’t have access to clean water. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that babies are breastfed until the age of two – but there are benefits to continuing even longer.

Breast milk can arguably also be applied topically – there’s some research backing up the theory that early milk (colostrum) in particular may help treat eye infections.

If you’re using formula, you need infant formula, using whey-based proteins, for babies under 6 months; you can then switch to casein-based milks (‘follow on milk’) if you like, or from 12 months you can just use cows’ milk. Formula based on goats’ milk is also available, but remember this isn’t suitable for milk allergy sufferers; you’ll need a prescription for soy formula instead. (If your baby is allergic to both, you’ll need tailored medical advice – see a doctor.)

Veganism

If you’re planning to raise your child vegan the best thing by a long way is to feed them breast milk – your own or someone else’s. (Of course, you could argue it’s not technically vegan, but most vegans I know consider that willingly giving human babies human breast milk is the correct order of things.)

If that’s not possible, you can get soy-based formula. NHS advice is to not use this unless your baby has a cows’ milk allergy, so take responsibility for this carefully. Do your own research and talk to healthcare providers. (Certainly don’t do it on my say so – I’m not an expert)

Do I need it?

Yes. Above all else. At an average over the first year of 25fl oz a day, this equates to around 60 gallons of milk in the first year (that’s 1.7 oil barrels full).

What about multiple babies?

You can breastfeed two babies at once; whether they were born together or at separate times. Your body should make enough milk to feed as many babies as you need.

For formula feeding, you’ll obviously need twice/three times/however many as much. You can bottle feed up to two children at once ,though not easily!

How do I get it?

Direct from source

If you’ve grown the baby yourself, milk will probably start skooshing out of your nipples without you needing to do a thing (see Stuff: Breasts). Your body will automatically make enough food to feed a child exclusively for at least six months. It’s likely to be their primary food source for a fair bit longer than that. I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs, but essentially after six months the iron store babies are born with starts to deplete (which isn’t the same as suddenly running out!), so you need to make sure there’s enough in their diet.

If you made your own baby but breastfeeding isn’t going according to plan, get in touch with La Leche League or another local support group; there are lots of experienced breastfeeders only too happy to give help and support.

Most people whose body has made a baby can then make milk to feed it, but not all. I’m not here to shame people who don’t breastfeed, and neither should you. (See I am not judging you).

If your body doesn’t make milk for itself, there are two options: get breast milk from someone else, or buy formula milk. The former isn’t so popular these days (in my culture, anyhow) but once upon a time wetnurses were quite the thing, and it’s by far the laziest option. There are plenty of women willing to breastfeed any hungry child, and in many cultures it’s quite normal for women to breastfeed any child in their care.

Milk kinship

Breastfeeding a child not biologically yours is known as milk kinship, and in Islam in particular it’s quite a big deal, with families liked by milk kinship being equivalent to the Christian concept of godparents and ‘milk siblings’ being forbidden to marry under Sharia law.

Whatever your background, it’s handy for another woman to breastfeed your child if looking after them, and it’s much easier than storing and carrying expressed milk or formula.

Buying milk

You can buy breast milk online but it’s unregulated and can be dangerous. If you’re in need of someone else’s expressed milk, the best thing is to go via a milk bank (and consider donating if you do have some of your own to share).

Otherwise, formula milk is available from many shops and over the internet. Goat and soy based formula is a little harder to get hold of but if you’ve done your research and want to go this way, they are available online and from more specialist shops.

I’d strongly urge you not to buy Nestle formula milk. (In the UK, the main Nestle formula is SMA.)

Is there a hack?

Breastfeeding is its own hack.

How much is it?

Your own breast milk, or that of a willing helper, is free, although you will find you need to eat more food yourself to keep up your energy.

The price of formula milk is regulated in the UK so you’re likely to pay much the same wherever you go. It’s excluded from money off coupons, deals, supermarket points etc, the theory being that it will discourage parents from switching from breastfeeding. To me, this seems insane and discriminatory – it’s never going to be cheaper then breastfeeding, and disadvantages parents unable to breastfeed. But there you go.

As of September 2015, most sources seem to suggest a cost of around UK£450/US$600 over the first year, per baby.

What are the safety considerations?

Bacteria

Your baby can get sick if there’s bacteria in the milk. Make sure you’re using clean bottles (sterilising in the first few months) and that formula is made up with clean water.

Drinking, smoking and drugs

If you’re making breast milk, remember that what you eat or drink will end up in it. Make sure you tell someone prescribing you medication that you’re breastfeeding. Remember that alcohol passes through breast milk, as well as nicotine and recreational drugs. As with many such issues, the research is necessarily quite sketchy as it has to be secondary and anecdotal – you’ll never get ethical or parental approval to expose a baby to high levels of toxins to see if it’s ok.

The ideal is therefore to avoid all of these completely, but as far as I’ve seen it’s a rare mother that does. Many are probably fine in moderation; others definitely aren’t. For example, the odd glass of wine seems to be ok, but you absolutely mustn’t breastfeed for 2 or 3 days after taking cocaine. Of course, altering your state of conciousness whilst looking after a baby is a bad idea anyway – and you definitely shouldn’t bed share if you’ve been smoking, drinking, or taking recreational and/or sedating drugs. So it’s really best to stay away from all these behaviours. However it’s not always as easy as that, and there’s no reason you automatically have to use formula or donated milk if you have addiction issues. Speak to your healthcare providers, La Leche League and other areas of support.

Infections and viruses

Some infections can be passed on through breast milk, although interestingly the World Health Organisation are now advising HIV positive mothers to breastfeed combined with antiretrovirals  (of course, always do your own research and talk to your doctor – did I mention I’m not an expert?).

If you’re acquiring someone else’s breast milk, there can be risks of transmitting infection including HIV, or of in containing high levels of drugs (over the counter, prescription or street) and that’s why it’s important to get it from a reputable source. Milk banks will make sure the milk they supply is safe.

If a non-parental caregiver is breastfeeding your child, all of the same issues apply in terms of passing on infections and whatever that person has put into their body. Make sure it’s someone you trust.

Accessories

For formula or expressed milk, you’ll also need bottles to feed your baby,  and a breast pump if you’re expressing.

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