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Facts to Know About How Breastfeeding is Different at 6 Months: Part 1

Mom sitting on couch with baby on lap breastfeeding.

So many of us rally around the goal of exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. But what happens after 6 months? Some mothers feel they have met their breastfeeding goal, and they feed their babies formula along with solid (or soft, or semi-soft) food. Other mothers, however, realize that both they and their babies are hooked on breastfeeding. They want to continue. But in what ways is breastfeeding different at 6 months?

You, your baby, and your milk all change in that second half of the first year. Here are factors you might not know, and how they will affect the physical and psychosocial aspects of the feeding relationship you enjoy with your infant or child.

1. Baby’s need for minerals

Yes, human milk is perfect for human babies. But at some point, generally around 6 months, the baby’s changing physical nature means changing nutritional needs.

For example, by about 6 months, babies have teeth and can sit up. Hence, those babies are capable of taking in some kind of table food. Think of it logically. Table food will be different from the mother’s milk, right? That’s because the baby’s needs are different.

Babies are born with extra iron “on board.” (Nurses, you know that newborns have higher hematocrits than adults, right? Right. That’s because they have more iron in their blood.)

Around 6 months or so, they don’t have those extra iron stores. So, it’s important that they take in good sources of iron.

Luckily, the mother’s milk changes, too. In the newborn stage and early infancy, zinc is critical for brain and retinal development. At birth, the baby has poor visual acuity, and the brain is developing very rapidly. (Certainly, the brain continues to grow, but at a slower rate.) Hence, the milk has greater amounts of zinc early in the lactation period.

 Amounts of zinc decrease in human milk during the first year.  By 6 months or so, the body “knows” that the baby is old enough to consume other sources of zinc. So, what would those be?

This is probably an overgeneralization, but it’s easy to remember. Many or most protein-rich foods are also rich in zinc. Hence, meat is an excellent source of zinc. (Pork and beans, anyone?) And yes, babies can and should consume at least some meat around 6 months. It’s a better choice than cereal fortified with iron.

Other rich sources of zinc include legumes or whole grains. Dairy products, such as yogurt, also contain good amounts of zinc. (But some parents want to avoid dairy products.)

2. Percentage of nutrition from mother’s milk

You might be wondering: Should older infants have a little or a lot of their mothers’ milk?

Let’s look at percentages related to food sources recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as of June 9, 2020:

“Breast-milk is also an important source of energy and nutrients in children aged 6–23 months. It can provide half or more of a child’s energy needs between the ages of 6 and 12 months, and one third of energy needs between 12 and 24 months. Breast-milk is also a critical source of energy and nutrients during illness and reduces mortality among children who are malnourished.”

3. Whey to casein ratio changes

Okay, get this straight: Whey is the water component of a protein. Casein is the curd component.

Think about this logically. As a newborn, the baby has a very immature gut, so the mother’s milk has a greater whey (water) component. But as babies grow, their gut is better equipped to digest the curd component.

In the newborn phase, human milk has about 90% whey, and about 10% casein. By the time the baby is about 6 months old, the milk has about 50% whey and about 50% casein.

The baby’s stools reflect this. Newborns have very soft stools. (Some parents call this “diarrhea,” but it’s not. It’s just the normal liquid-like, runny consistency of a stool that breastfed infants have in early infancy, reflecting the greater whey component.)

As the mother’s milk has a greater casein component, the baby’s stools are more formed.

4. Cognition

Newborns and young infants have small stomachs, and hence, they want food when they’re hungry. They ask for it, and they honestly can’t wait.

Older infants and children, however, can understand boundaries, including delays. Parents can often negotiate with them to put it off for a few minutes. Meaning, there’s a chance at reasoning with an older infant.

5. Readiness for “solids”

When we talk about “growth and development,” what we mean is, humans become “ready” as they mature.

Think about it in a different context. Twelve-year old kids aren’t ready to drive a car. Three-year old kids aren’t ready to be Olympic gymnasts. And young infants aren’t ready for solid foods. As you can see, in any other context, we wouldn’t expect kids to do what their minds or bodies aren’t ready for.

Yet, some do give – even insist on – giving solids to kids before they’re ready. The infant’s gut simply isn’t mature enough to handle solid foods until around 6 months. Consuming solids before that time can result in all sorts of physiologic problems.

We often mention that allergies may result when infants eat solid foods before they’re ready. That’s true. But we seldom mention studies showing that consuming solids too soon can create a greater risk for developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, obesity, eczema, and celiac disease.

As I said earlier: You, your baby, and your milk all change after that second half of the first year. Becoming aware of these facts enables you to recognize how those changes affect your milk, your response to your baby, and your ability to determine the what-why-when-how- and how much to feed after 6 months or so. Stay tuned for more facts you should know about how breastfeeding is different at 6 months.

Have you breastfed beyond 6 months? How is breastfeeding at 6 months different? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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