The Coolest Things You Never Knew About Nursing

It sustains life. It boosts immunity. It may or may not taste like the milk left over from a bowl of Lucky Charms. (Full disclosure: I sampled mine just once, years ago, and I only can recall it vaguely tasting like cantaloupe juice).

The truth is, breast milk’s powers are kind of insane. Obviously, the mere fact that it's food for a tiny human that comes from your body is a pretty wild place to start. But the cool factor goes way beyond that. There’s also research to suggest it bumps up IQ, clears up stuffy noses, and may even kill cancer cells. In honor of National Breast-feeding Awareness Month, we’ve assembled some of the most fascinating facts we’ve ever heard about the liquid gold. Pour yourself a latte and read on.

Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk is a portable pharmacy.
The sucking motion of breast-feeding creates a vacuum in which a bit of the infant’s saliva travels backwards into the nipple ducts. Scientists speculate that, if the baby is sick, the mother’s immune system is able to “scan” this baby backwash for bacteria, viruses, or other indicators of infant illness. If anything seems amiss, mom’s bod springs into action, boosting the concentration of certain immune-related compounds in her breast milk. “This may be one of the ways in which mother's body ‘knows’ to increase immune protection via milk,” explains Katie Hinde, PhD, a biologist and associate professor at the Center for Evolution and Medicine at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University (who also runs a blog called Mammals Suck ... Milk!).
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk might be responsible for your Type-A personality.
Some of Hinde’s research on rhesus macaque monkeys (considered our best available model for understanding the behavioral biology of human lactation) has found that first-time monkey mothers produce milk with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. One result: Baby monkeys with more anxious temperaments when compared with babies of experienced mommy monkeys. “I wonder if the ‘firstborn syndrome’ we see in so many human children may have more of a physiological basis than was previously thought,” says Jennifer Grayson, who writes about the phenomenon in her book, Unlatched: The Evolution of Breastfeeding and the Making of a Controversy.
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk is the new coconut oil.
You know how people use coconut oil to moisturize their skin, whiten their teeth, remove their makeup, and sauté their collard greens? Breast milk is kind of like that. Lactating mamas swear by its power to loosen stuffy noses (just drizzle a few drops inside each nostril), clear up baby acne and cradle cap, ease the sting of diaper rash and bug bites, heal scratches and rashes, and more. Cassandra Del Rio, a 22-year-old mom from Crown Point, IN, even believes it cured her 2-month-old son’s clogged tear ducts. “He kept getting gunk in his eye. Google suggested warm rags, but that wasn’t helping. Breast milk also kept coming up; I tried it, and literally two hours later, the eye boogers were gone — and they never came back. I couldn’t believe it.”

Babies aren’t the only ones benefitting from Dr. BM’s healing powers: Mud Facial Bar in Chicago offers breast milk facials, and Jaclyn Larson, 31, of Des Plaines, IL, says her husband is a convert ever since he used a washcloth soaked in her breast milk on a nasty leg scrape he scored playing softball. “It was burning and really bothering him. It took some serious convincing to let me put breast milk on his wound, but the sting went away instantly, and it healed within a few days. Since then, he's totally convinced that breast milk is magical.”

What’s the secret? According to Diane West, IBCLC, director of media relations for La Leche League International, breast milk is rich with anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral factors. “It has live, active cells that are strong protectants. Plus, it’s pH-neutral, so it won’t inflame mucous membranes like those found inside the nose. It’s been used for centuries to clear up stuffy noses.”

Moms with excellent aim can squirt milk directly into baby’s eyes, nose or ears; those with less instinct for target practice might prefer simply pumping some milk and using a small dropper or spoon. (Be careful when putting breast milk in a little one’s nose; you only need a drop or two.)
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Boozy breast milk isn’t really a thing.
With our first baby, I was religious about pumping and dumping after I drank. Even for just a small glass of wine, I’d strap on my pump, then pour what I envisioned as Sauvignon-scented milk down the drain. I even brought Pumpty (my nickname for it) in the car to dinner on Saturday nights; my husband and I would kick back with friends (Baby stayed home with a sitter), and on the drive back, I’d pump in the passenger seat so I could just fall into bed once I was home.

Turns out, my efforts were misguided. “As soon as you no longer feel buzzed, the alcohol is out of your milk,” West says. In other words, it’s not like you throw back some Cuervo, the tequila goes into your breast milk, and it stays there until the baby nurses or you pump it out. “Alcohol passes into and out of milk, just as it does in your bloodstream,” West says. That may be why many modern-day moms abide by the adage, “Safe to drive, safe to nurse.” This doesn’t mean you should bring your nursling to your next bar crawl; it just means that many experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, feel that one drink — a 12-ounce beer, 4-ounce glass of wine, or a single ounce of hard liquor — is probably safe. Still feeling neurotic? Save your drink for just after you nurse or pump, and give yourself at least two hours per drink until your next feeding or pumping session. (Note: A parent should never sleep with her or his baby after drinking, smoking, or using drugs.)
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk shape-shifts.
The protein/carb/fat ratio changes within a single feeding; the foremilk — the milk the baby gets first — is thinner, with a lower fat content, to quench his thirst without filling him up. Later in the nursing session comes the hindmilk, a creamy, high-fat milk that will hopefully leave him in a milk coma, drifting off to sleep.

The type and amount of compounds related to the immune system present in breastmilk also change as a baby matures. “[The amount is] much higher when a child is older because that’s when [babies] are on hands and knees, crawling around, putting things in their mouths and being exposed to more bacteria,” West says. “So a toddler who is lucky enough to still be nursing is going to have much greater protection against all the germs he comes into contact with.”
Some other crazy ingredients in breast milk:

1. Lactoferrin, which inhibits the growth of certain types of bacteria in the GI tract.

2. Secretory immunoglobulin A, which protects the baby from infection-causing viruses encountered by the mother, as well as E. Coli. (IgA is a protective immune system compound that isn’t found in formula.)

3. Lysozyme, which protects the infant against Salmonella and E. Coli.
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
It might save your cat.
Almost 20 years ago, certified lactation consultant Patricia Berg-Drazin, IBCLC, rescued two abandoned newborn kittens. She brought them to the vet, who encouraged formula-feeding. After a couple of weeks, Tigger, the female cat, began losing weight — an indication that she was sick. “The doctor didn’t want to put her on an antibiotic because that would destroy her gut,” Berg-Drazin recalls. “I remembered that one of my textbooks compared milk from different mammals. So I sat down with vet and I said, ‘If I can get breast milk from one of my clients, we can get IgA [for Tigger.]”

The vet agreed, and 18 years later, Tigger is still kicking.
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
It screws with your bone density…but just temporarily.
Like the skim in your smoothie or the Silk in your homemade latte, breast milk is brimming with calcium. Guess where that calcium comes from, though? You got it: your bones. That’s part of the reason why a breast-feeding mom may actually experience a 4% loss in bone density during her milk-making months. (Another factor: Maternal estrogen levels plummet during lactation, mimicking a menopausal-type state.)

Not to worry: Evidence suggests that you’ll fully recover this bone density within 12 months after weaning. Some studies go so far to suggest not just a rebound, but an improvement. A Finnish study found that mothers who breast-fed for 33 months or longer (lifetime total, not necessarily in a single stretch) had stronger and physically bigger bones than women who had breastfed for a shorter time. According to West, “After weaning, calcium is accepted more rapidly into bones, creating the higher, stronger bone density.”
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk is actually not (just) a liquid.
Technically speaking, breast milk is not a food or even a liquid, according to Grayson. “Like blood, it is actually a powerful human tissue — an amalgam of complex nutrients, yes, but also hormones, bioactive molecules, microorganisms, and thousands of other poorly understood or yet-to-be discovered components. Scientists mapped the entire human genome over a decade ago, yet we still don't have a full catalog of what's in breast milk!” (Of course, thanks to physics, connective tissues can be liquids, so it’s more like, breast milk is a very special kind of liquid. So there you go.)
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
There’s something called the "breast crawl."
Google “breast crawl” and get ready for your newest time-suck. These videos show minutes-old infants being placed on their mother’s bellies or chests. Something kind of miraculous happens: The newborn, who must be exhausted from having just gone through the most arduous of journeys, musters the energy to push/pull/wiggle herself towards mama’s nipple and instinctively latches and starts suckling.

In reality, it isn’t always possible for a mom to hold her baby within minutes of being delivered. A 2016 study found that babies delivered vaginally had significantly more success in terms of breast crawling than babies born via cesarean (88% versus 11%). I was lucky enough to witness the breast crawl with both of my deliveries, which included a C-section and a VBAC. After being wheeled into recovery following my C, a nurse placed our firstborn daughter on my chest while a platoon of other caretakers tended to everything from my belly-button down. I could barely believe my eyes as she squirmed and wriggled her way over to my left breast; it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Intrigued? Watch it here.
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
It’s totally legal to nurse in public.
Whether you’re a hardcore, out-in-the-open lactivist or prefer to nurse beneath a Hooter Hider, it’s your right to nurse in public. The Best for Babes Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating institutional and cultural obstacles to nursing, runs a Nursing In Public (NIP) incident-reporting hotline. If a breast-feeding woman feels harassed for feeding her little one in public, she can call 855-NIP-FREE and report the issue by providing information (where/what/how) via recorded message. A volunteer will return the call and help explain what a nursing mother’s rights are, suggest ways to approach the offender (be it an individual or a business) and offer emotional support. Best for Babes Foundation hopes to eventually use the recorded messages to strengthen legislation protecting nursing moms.
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk saves preemies.
Nobody wants her baby to end up in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). One reason: Premature babies are at risk for a scary, potentially fatal GI condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). Preemies are at the greatest risk, and the younger the preemie, the higher the risk. Formula-fed infants are more likely to develop NEC than those fed breast milk (it has to do with the fact that breast milk contains a number of unique protective compounds). Many NICUs do whatever they can to help get breast milk to babies; for example, Texas Children’s Hospital follows a protocol in which all NICU babies weighing less than 3.3 pounds receive a 100% breast milk diet, including donor milk in some cases. Since implementing this protocol in 2009, Texas Children’s Hospital’s NICU NEC rates have dropped from the national average of 10-12% to just 2%.
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
HIV-positive moms are encouraged to breast-feed.
Yup, breast milk is so good that in developing nations, breast-feeding is encouraged, even when the mother is HIV-positive. The World Health Organization recommends that HIV-positive mothers practice exclusive breast-feeding (meaning no other liquids or food are given) for the first six months, at which point the baby should start trying appropriate foods. Why? “We’re not sure why, but the lowest rates of HIV transmission occur with exclusive breast-feeding,” West explains. The next best thing is exclusive formula-feeding. “But for some reason, there is a higher rate of transmission when a mom uses a combination of breast milk and formula-feeding.”
Illustrated by: Amrita Marino.
Breast milk may benefit cancer patients.
Swedish researchers have discovered that it may be possible to alter a component found in breast milk such that it could have the ability to kill cancer cells. Called HAMLET (Human Alpha-lactalbumin Made LEthal to Tumour cells), the substance, when injected into bladder-cancer patients, caused them to excrete dead cancer cells in their urine. It’s not a cure yet, but it holds promise for the future.