“For God’s sake, please breast-feed”

A new study, the subject of a story by Nicholas Wade in The New York Times this week, reveals a little more of the magic of breast milk. It turns out that complex sugars in human milk encourage the growth of "good" bacteria that form a lining in a baby's gut, protecting her from dangerous microbes.

The baby can't digest the complex sugar, but the bifido bacteria can. In an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce German, Carlito Lebrilla and David Mills and colleagues describe the "intriguing strategy" lactation represents — to nourish microbes that can in turn protect a baby who has not yet developed an immune system of his own.

Dr. German told Wade, "We were astonished that milk had so much material that the infant couldn’t digest. Finding that it selectively stimulates the growth of specific bacteria, which are in turn protective of the infant, let us see the genius of the strategy — mothers are recruiting another life-form to baby-sit their baby."

The researchers used mass-spectometry-based tools to examine the structures of the complex sugars in breast milk. Their findings made the researchers think that milk holds even more secrets, even perhaps some that could help struggling newborns or even older humans.

Said Dr. Mills, "It’s all there for a purpose, though we’re still figuring out what that purpose is. So for God’s sake, please breast-feed."

The things they carry

The latest figures on global maternal mortality, which I've written about in the last two posts here on Birth Story, are encouraging. But are they correct?

The new figures, in a study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are much more positive than the ones the World Health Organization came up with in 2006. Advocate groups fear that the brighter statistics will slow down progress on making birth safe for women in developing countries.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has made a specialty of chronicling the dire state of women in the world's least prosperous areas, wrote in his blog "On the Ground" on April 16 that "when women die in childbirth in poor countries, nobody keeps track, and so all these figures are very rough estimates."

Imagine that. A mother dies, and nobody even writes it down.

I am a regular reader of Kristof's column, as he consistently mines the rich vein of human interest stories about indigent women.

Kristof has done some great video work on "On the Ground."  Video gives a face -- and a voice -- to the actual women who are living the difficult lives he writes about.

I would recommend taking a look at Kristof's videos from eastern Congo, although some of them are terribly upsetting, as many of these women have been brutalized in the political unrest there.

Here is one video that is simply illuminating, "What Are You Carrying?"