The Evolved Nest is an educational, sister initiative of Kindred based on the award-winning research and publications of Darcia Narvaez, PhD. You can listen to the entire Evolved Nest podcast series here.
The Evolved Nest is a breakthrough concept that integrates findings across fields that bear on child development, child raising and adult behavior. The Evolved Nest promotes optimal health and wellbeing, cooperation, and receptive and sociomoral intelligences. Societal moves away from providing the Evolved Nest have contributed to the ill being and dysregulation we see in one another and society. Learn how to nest your children and re-nest yourself.
Breastfeeding is one of nine components of the Evolved Nest.
The Tremendous Benefits of Breastfeeding: An Evolved Nest Podcast
MARY: Hello, my name is Mary Tarsha. We are so happy to be with you again today, and I am here with Dr. Darcia Narvaez talking in this series about the evolved nest and one of the critical components and benefits of breastfeeding. Thank you so much for being with us, Darcia.
DR. NARVAEZ: Nice to be with you, Mary.
MARY: To begin with, what are some of the tremendous benefits that science and research in the last few years has discovered by breastmilk and breastfeeding.
DR. NARVAEZ: Breastmilk–it’s the elixir of life! I think we all want to have it because it builds everything you need, all the good things. It’s got antibodies, anti-virus, anti-allergy, anti-parasite kinds of ingredients. It’s protective over the lifespan against high blood pressure and cholesterol, cancer, diabetes and obesity.
MARY: Wait, so it’s protective later in life?
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, and let me just say at the outset that when researchers conduct experiments or correlational analyses comparing breast milk, or breastfeeding, with artificial feeding, they’re comparing three months or six months of feeding, rarely beyond that. But, in our ancestry and in our evolved nest, breastmilk and breastfeeding goes on, on average, for four years. So, the findings that we’re going to talk about here are from a minimal amount of breastmilk compared to what our species expects.
MARY: Alright, so the scientific literature and the research is looking at the effects of breastmilk with infants who just receive it for 3 or 6 months, and there are just tremendous benefits that are found. But really the nest is saying it’s important to breastfeed, if possible, even longer.
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, one year is what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends because they don’t think American moms can do it any longer or would be willing to do it any longer–which I think is under-crediting moms! And the World Health Organization says at least two years of breastfeeding. That’s based on lots of research on health factors.
MARY: So breastmilk builds the immune system?
DR. NARVAEZ: To build the immune system takes several years. Breast milk feeds good bacteria which populate your gut, where the immune system resides primarily. We know that artificial feeding does the opposite. It doesn’t have all of the ingredients that build the brain and body in the right way and artificial food actually can populate the body with pathogenic bacteria.
MARY: So many children and so many parents complain about ear infection after ear infection or some other type of infection. It seems like every six weeks or eight weeks they’re back at the pediatrician. Does breast milk have any influence on this at all?
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, starting in 2011 the Surgeon General of the USA provides tables and data showing that children are more likely to get an ear infection if they given artificial food than if they have breast milk. Breast milk prevents various infections, gastrointestinal problems and allergies. Breast milk is just this magical thing, and we should say that mom’s breasts are really a science laboratory in themselves. Why? Because the child’s saliva on the nipple signals to the mother what is needed, what the child needs. So if they’re in a growth spurt the breast will provide more fat. If there’s an infectious agent in the vicinity the mother will produce antibodies to that, tailored for the gender of the child.
MARY: So not only is there physiological attunement taking place between the mother and the child, but you’re even saying breast milk is specific for that gender of the baby.
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, isn’t that amazing?
MARY: So what are some other tremendous benefits of breastfeeding.
DR. NARVAEZ: Well, another one besides all the wonderful things in it like hormones, growth factors, enzymes, minerals, vitamins, fat, carbohydrates, protein and water, they come in the right proportions, in human proportions unlike other mothers’ milk, like cow’s milk. Cow’s milk has the wrong proportions, because each milk of a mammal evolved for that species. Predators have thick kinds of milk because they have to leave their offspring for a long time and go off and find food. But human milk is a thin type which means it’s supposed to be ingested frequently. So, milk is species specific for that species’ babies best benefit.
MARY: Very interesting. So what we’re seeing here, if I’m understanding you correctly is that formula or artificial food is very standardized, having the same composition feeding after feeding. But when we get to breastmilk, it is really individualized for the baby–based on whether the child is male or female and what is going on in the environment. It gives the child what the child needs at that moment.
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, and we should also say breast milk changes flavor with mother’s diet. So the child gets used to different flavors, whereas artificial food, infant formula, is pretty much the same flavor day after day. In my view it actually sets you up for liking fast food because it tastes terrible, if you have much of a palate developed.
MARY: And standardized too, right? The same thing every single time versus fruits and vegetables change in texture.
DR. NARVAEZ: And your taste palate is shaped in those first years, affecting what you want and desire to eat. It appears that breastmilk is intended to have a child’s palate get used to and prefer the foods of their particular society, through the mother eating a wide variety of foods.
MARY: So, there’s so many physiological benefits, but what about psychological benefits. What are some benefits to the child?
DR. NARVAEZ: The research indicates that kids who are breasted are less likely to have mental health problems and addictions. They tend to be higher in intelligence and they are more emotionally secure than those who are not breastfed. This is not a surprise because you’re getting all sorts of things from breastfeeding. You’re getting a lot of touch and attention when you breastfeed and hopefully eye-to-eye contact, which builds the brain — just looking at baby’s eyes. It’s building their brain in the way it’s supposed to be built, and so the psychological benefits are not a surprise.
MARY: I think it’s also interesting to think about just the mechanics which are very different in terms of the bottle versus breastfeeding and how this relates to control. Really the child has more control, correct, whenever they’re breastfeeding compared to the bottle and maybe that might not be intuitive to some listeners or even to some people who have never nursed a child.
DR. NARVAEZ: Right, the breastfeeding baby has to work at it. You can tell a breastfeeding baby by the big cheeks they have because their muscles have built up from having to work at getting the milk out of the breast. Also, what happens then is they get to decide when they’ve had enough. They follow their body’s cues to stop eating. With a bottle, it’s different. The bottle just sort of pours down your throat and you can’t control it, and the adults decide how much you’re supposed to have and give you that much and make you drink it. So that may be one reason that formula use is linked to obesity. Maybe it’s linked to lacking a sense of control in your life, which is not conducive to optimizing your development. Babies need to feel like they are in charge and they can make it in the world. They build their confidence after birth by crawling up the mother’s belly, what happens under normal conditions, naturalistic conditions. The baby will crawl up and start massaging the mother’s nipple to start the oxytocin flow, lactation letdown, so the breastmilk will come. It’s really detrimental to not allow them that sense of agency.
MARY: And sense of control and self regulation. That’s very very fascinating. What about for premature babies?
DR. NARVAEZ: Premature babies do best on breastmilk. When mom has the baby on her body and breastfeeding, her body will produce automatically the right kind of milk composition for that baby. The body knows what happened, if the baby came out early, the body can tell and it will improve on the premature baby’s immune system, digestion, and keep the organs that are working normally. Babies are set up for breastmilk, so it’s really helpful to all babies, but especially also premature babies.
MARY: Okay, I want to move now and talk about some myths. I know there are a lot of myths within our society and some things are fuzzy and not clear. One of the myths that you have brought up in your research is that breastfeeding is easy and instinctual. Can you talk about that?
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, I hear people saying ‘oh it’s instinctual’ or ‘something’s wrong with you’ if you have trouble breastfeeding. Something’s wrong with the mother, they can’t do it. But it’s really something that moms have to learn to do, especially with the first baby. You need a lot of coaching. It helps enormously to have observed breastfeeding and how it works. Babies have to latch on properly and sometimes babies today have lip ties or tongue ties that need to be taken care of so the baby can actually latch on. Mothers think often if the baby’s not growing and it’s their fault– they don’t have enough milk, which is another myth. But actually it’s probably that the baby has a tie that has to be snipped so that the baby can latch properly.
MARY: We are probably talking about it more in the context of a community and how we can provide that really good nutritional and physical benefit to the infant rather than just placing blame on the mothers.
DR. NARVAEZ: Yes, we ought to underscore the fact that breastfeeding like all aspects of the nest are a community provision. The nest is provided by a community so in other countries. For example, in non-USA countries, in some places, they still have wet nurses. That means that if a mom’s milk doesn’t come in right away, which happens, a wet nurse provides breast milk and breastfeeds that baby, or they have other ways of providing breastmilk to moms. It’s apparent that some mothers in the USA do have trouble with breastfeeding. The World Health Organization suggests it’s only maybe 5% of moms in the world that physiologically can’t breastfeed. But in the States it almost seems like there’s a lot more. But I think it’s because they’re not finding the lip ties, tongue ties, and also the trauma that happens at birth can undermine breastfeeding in general. For example, you don’t want to separate mom and baby at birth because that undermines breastfeeding success. You don’t want to provide formula or sugar water to the baby, which a lot of hospitals do also, which undermines breastfeeding and the bonding between mom and child. Mothers should be blaming the society for not providing the support they need.
MARY: Oh, interesting. You were talking about the availability of wet nurses within the community– what a stress relief that must be to mothers knowing that if their milk doesn’t come in right away or something happens, or maybe they are sick and can’t nurse for a period. Their child will still receive those very good nutrients that they need.
DR. NARVAEZ: That’s right, yes.
MARY: So another myth that actually comes up quite often is about frequency of nursing and breastmilk, can you speak a little bit to that?
DR. NARVAEZ: Interesting, isn’t it? Again it reflects the misunderstanding of babies’ development. Their stomachs really are only the size of a quarter at birth, and so they need to feed frequently. Because human milk is thin it passes through the body really quickly and needs to be ingested frequently. Again it’s full of hormones and all sorts of endocrine system developers, all sorts of things that develop the body and brain in the right way. The baby should be flooded with those things all the time, so that’s why the young baby’s going to want to feed frequently. That’s part of what helps them grow well.
MARY: Interesting, so what about, you know we hear six months is enough, and then after that it’s fine to go ahead and move to formula or table food, something like that.
DR. NARVAEZ: Well, this is a little more complicated. It keeps shifting with what the recommendations are. It used to be 12 months exclusive breastfeeding and now they’ve gone down to six, so it is complicated. Breast milk, again, should be taken in, ingested, for at least two years because of its benefits. It doesn’t mean that the baby’s not eating something else too. At age 5 or 6 months when they put things in their mouth they like to taste a lot of things. They don’t necessarily eat them (but are tasting things), so I think that’s why the recommendation is now 6 months.
MARY: Oh, interesting. It’s interesting to hear the history of that.
DR. NARVAEZ: But it’s complicated.
MARY: Yes, and how that has changed. So not only frequent nursing within a day but then over a long period of time too.
DR. NARVAEZ: Right, and I think maybe the six-month recommendation now is because it’s possible that moms aren’t as healthy as they should be or could be, and so their milk is not as satisfying, I’m not sure. We are intergenerationally co-constructed. Our good development is passed generation to generation. Things get undermined when your grandparents didn’t get good food or they went through famine–that affects how well your body works as a grandkid. There’s a lot of epigenetic programing, the “fetal matrix,” from previous generations that may be affecting some of these outcomes too.
MARY: That’s interesting. Talk about the importance of community! We are starting to see some shifts in thinking and understanding and recognition of the importance of breastfeeding. Women are finding breastfeeding groups or even seeing in new buildings lactation rooms that brings an awareness to the community of how important it is. It also gives women and all families that support that they need.
DR. NARVAEZ: And the United States has been a little slow in all of this in recent decades because the rest of the world has parental leave. Except for three countries, including the U.S. everyone else has paid maternal leave after a baby is born. This is really important for establishing breastfeeding and maintaining it over that first year in particular. The United States has not implemented parental leave.
MARY: Oh, so you’re saying that one way that we can concretely help support families, ways to help both children and mothers is to provide them that time to be able to establish breastfeeding and bonding.
DR. NARVAEZ: New moms in our country need lactation consultants to make things go well. We also need to educate doctors and nurses still, even in the baby friendly hospitals in the States, which is around 10 to 15%; “baby-friendly” means that it’s really breastfeeding friendly. That is, they don’t separate moms from babies. They don’t give formula or sugar water to babies. They provide breastfeeding support. Even in baby-friendly hospitals there are a lot of nurses and doctors who don’t understand the mechanics, don’t understand how to find and solve the problems when babies have latching problems. So lots more education is needed in the medical community as well as of us community members.
MARY: It is empowering to mothers and to families to know that if the resource isn’t there immediately within the hospital or within their immediate community, they can reach out beyond the hospital in order to find those lactation consultants and experts who are available to help them.
DR. NARVAEZ: One more thing. Under natural conditions the baby is bulked up with extra fuel before birth (under naturalistic conditions). So during those first couple days while moms are figuring out breastfeeding, baby will be fine and should be losing a little weight. Ideally baby is receiving colostrum, the early form of fuel from the breast that helps the baby thrive. Parents need time to learn what their baby is signalling and needing. Learning to pay attention to the specifics of the situation helps parents figure out how to provide what baby needs.
MARY: It’s just incredible how breastmilk is so individualized and tailored to the baby’s needs. So, we are at the end now of our time, but thank you so much for joining us and for the great information summarizing and explaining some of the research behind breastmilk.
DR. NARVAEZ: Thank you.