Human breast milk is often called liquid gold, and should be considered the most original Paleo food available in modern times. Although today’s standards for the human diet have migrated away from our evolutionary roots,1 research still supports numerous health benefits for both infants and their mothers when breastfeeding exclusively during the first six months of life.2
However, it turns out that it is quite challenging for mothers today to stick to these guidelines, often citing insufficient milk supply or a still hungry infant as the main reasons to supplement with commercial formulas or to abandon nursing altogether.3 One study showed that 92% of new mothers experienced issues, such as difficulty with the infant latching on to the breast, pain during nursing and a fear of insufficient milk production during the first week postpartum.4
Breastfeeding isn’t easy. Primate behavior indicates that breastfeeding requires learning for both mother and infant in order to be successful. We need to revise our current expectations for a realistic perspective on the process5 and support women as they form a solid feeding relationship with their babies, just as hunter-gatherers pulled together in their communities.6,7,8
It’s safe to assume, that our Paleolithic ancestors were able to successfully feed their newborns human milk, despite that it isn’t an intuitive process and requires learning,9 and the obstacles faced by their modern counterparts today didn’t discourage them. Many factors are at play, such as the parent’s attitudes and mothers returning to work outside the home that influence the declining rates and duration of breastfeeding,10 which typically lasts two to four months compared to two to four years for contemporary hunter-gatherer populations.11
Today women have the choice and privilege whether or not and for how long to breastfeed. However, many mothers experience anxiety and frustration over their perceived lack of ability to nourish their child without supplementation12 with commercial infant formula, which may feel like the only option available to them.
What tools from the Paleo lifestyle can we provide to mothers today to empower them to successfully and sufficiently breastfeed their young?
Without the availability of cribs and strollers, hunter-gatherers were more likely to carry their young. Skin to skin contact between mother and baby have been shown to increase breastfeeding success. 13 Lactation is a neuro-hormonal process involving intact neural pathways and further activated by the mechanical action of the infant’s demand for milk. Therefore, the more frequent and longer the time an infant is encouraged to feed, the greater response from the body to adequately produce milk,14,15 and increase its fat content.16
PALEO DIET, RICH IN HEALTHY FAT
The nutrient-dense Paleo diet provides mothers with the appropriate building blocks for rich breast milk,17 with high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids similar to those found in traditional societies. 18 The nutritional composition of breast milk is dynamic and varied depending on the infant’s needs.19,20 In general, the fat content of breast milk is 35% – 50% saturated fat, where 20% of the content is lauric and capric acid.21 Cooking with coconut milk and coconut oil can significantly boost lauric and capric acid concentrations of breast milk.22
REDUCTION IN STRESS AND FATIGUE
Hunter-gatherer women didn’t have the societal pressure to try and “do it all” like women today who juggle a family and career, while still in the postpartum year. The levels of anxiety, fatigue, and stress experienced today are all major inhibitors of lactation. 23 It is also common for women who received interventions during delivery, such as the use of pain medications or C-sections to have delayed onset lactation further leading to the pressures on a new mother.24 Luckily, breastfeeding suppresses the physiological and physical responses to stress.25
The Paleo lifestyle can boost a mother’s confidence, and allow her body to respond to the demands of her infant, which will impact her ability to nurse her baby as long as she chooses.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC. "Breastfeeding trends and updated national health objectives for exclusive breastfeeding--United States, birth years 2000-2004." MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report 56.30 (2007): 760.
Nommsen-Rivers, Laurie A., et al. "Comfort with the idea of formula feeding helps explain ethnic disparity in breastfeeding intentions among expectant first-time mothers." Breastfeeding Medicine 5.1 (2010): 25-33.
Li, Ruowei, et al. "Prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding among US infants: The third national health and nutrition examination survey (Phase II, 1991-1994)."American Journal of Public Health 92.7 (2002): 1107-1110.
Moore, Elizabeth R., and Gene Cranston Anderson. "Randomized Controlled Trial of Very Early Mother‐Infant Skin‐to‐Skin Contact and Breastfeeding Status." Journal of midwifery & women’s health 52.2 (2007): 116-125.
Grajeda, Rubén, and Rafael Pérez-Escamilla. "Stress during labor and delivery is associated with delayed onset of lactation among urban Guatemalan women." The Journal of nutrition 132.10 (2002): 3055-3060.
Heinrichs, Markus, Inga Neumann, and Ulrike Ehlert. "Lactation and stress: protective effects of breast-feeding in humans." Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress 5.3 (2002): 195-203.