Breastfeeding is best, cow milk can be harmful
Feeding babies below six months seems like an easy thing because they won’t need anything else beside their mother’s milk. But when the mother is not able to breastfeed, either due to infectious illness, lack of time or simply inability to get the milk, then things start getting a bit complicated.
Seraphine Nikuze, for instance, could not breastfeed her two-month old baby due to a busy schedule, so she did what seemed obvious and gave her whole cow milk. “I knew I could not sustain buying the guigoz milk and I thought cow milk would be the closest thing to breast milk,” she says.
It is a decision that apparently many women who cannot afford semi-skimmed milk such as guigoz would make. When asked, Claudine Umutesi answers without hesitation that (boiled) cow milk will be her choice, for she has seen many do that back in her village in Gakenke district.
But according to Dr. Raymond Awazi, medical director and head of the pediatric and neonatology department at the La Croix du Sud hospital, cow milk is not the best choice. “All species are made differently and the milk of each was specifically meant to take care of its own little ones,” he says. Simply put, cow milk is not meant for human babies.
For Awazi, the first option should be to breastfeed until six months, which he says has many advantages: on the nutritional level, for the breast milk is specifically for babies; on the immunological level, for it contains antibodies and white blood cells that protect the baby from infections; on the psychological and emotional level, for the baby feels loved and protected; and finally on the practical level, as the milk is almost always available and doesn’t cost anything.
As for cow milk, Awazi says is lacks many substance that human babies require. “Breast milk and cow milk are different in their composition in a way that affects the baby’s health and development,” he remarks, explaining that there are a lot more proteins in cow milk (which is why a calf grows so fast) and it even contains proteins that cause allergies to the baby.
A baby’s brain also needs sugar to grow and oleic acid to develop its capacities, and the two are not present in sufficient quantities in cow milk – the oleic acid is actually almost non-existent.
Cholesterol, which is crucial in the formation of some necessary skin fats and vitamin D to protect the skin, can also not be found in cow milk. And although there are fats in both breast and cow milk, the fats in breast milk are easily absorbed in the baby’s body, contrarily to cow milk.
“On top of this, mineral salts such as sodium and calcium which the baby needs are excessive in cow milk to the point that they can damage the body and brain,” explains Awazi, adding that breast milk, besides containing just enough and easily absorbable salts, facilitates the proliferation of bacteria necessary to a good digestion and contains the iron the baby needs.
As a result of all these differences, the doctor says, babies fed with cow milk can develop anemia, diarrhea, allergies, underdevelopment of the brain, emotional problems and damage to the mucous membrane of the intestines due to constant diarrhea, among others.
Seraphine Nikuze did indeed witness these consequences when her baby developed a constant diarrhea and her tummy was swelling. “I first thought she had been poisoned, but I was advised to see a pediatrician who found out that her intestines had been damaged by cow milk,” said Nikuze who is devastated by the possibility that her child may suffer for the rest of her life due to her ignorance.
Asked what women such as Nikuze should do, Dr Awazi says that while semi-skimmed milk or guigoz would be a better option, those who cannot afford it could use cow milk but with some precautions.
“There is need to add water to the milk when boiling it, for this will reduce the mineral salts to a less harmful level,” he says, explaining sugar must also be added to the milk, as well as some drops of soya oil which contains oleic and linoleic acids. “However, I would encourage all mothers who are able to exclusively breastfeed their children until they are six months.”
That is also the view of the ministry of health, which is currently planning a national breastfeeding campaign, themed ‘Give your child the best start in life,’ to raise awareness on the importance of breastfeeding for a child’s early development and consequently, their life.