Updated: Feb 24, 2020
“I need to give top-ups, my milk hasn’t come in yet and my baby is ravenous”- Mother of baby at 24hrs
A common emotion to feel and frequently heard by maternity workers. But is she ravenous though? Is she really?
You see a newborn human infant (and we are talking a full term, healthy baby in the first 24-48 hrs of life here) isn’t born 'hungry' as such. That would, evolutionarily speaking, be a really bad idea!
Cave Baby: “Hello! Where am I? What’s going on???”
Cave Mummy: “Oh my! You must be starving, we must get you feeding straight away”
Cave Daddy: “Er... I think we’d better get moved away from this mess first or the wolves will be sniffing round”
Cave Mummy: “But if I don’t feed the baby now they will starve to death”
Cave Baby: “This is weird, this isn’t where I was before. I think I need to explore”
Cave Mummy: “No time to explore, little one, you feed filling up”
Cave Baby: “What’s this thing here? It smells delicious. How does it work?”
Cave Mummy: “Oh no! Still not feeding, you must be running out of energy”
Cave Baby: “Oooo I feel all faint and weak”
Wouldn’t it make much more sense for the baby to arrive fully stocked up to allow a period of safe nesting, adjustment and learning?
Yes it would. And, unsurprisingly, that is exactly what happens.
That amazing organ – the placenta – has been stocking up your little one for the last 9 months ready for their entrance into the world. They have access to a wide range of energy-giving stores within their bodies allowing plenty of time for baby to explore and get to know the outside of mum’s body, locate the breasts and figure out the best way to get milk out of them. Time also for Mum's body to get the message that baby was born safely and respond to the need to make milk.
So why do newborns seem so demanding and desperate for food?
Newborns have a very, very strong drive to survive. And in order to survive they need protection: Protection from ‘wolves’ and protection from this hostile new environment.
They are programmed to insist, very loudly, that we don’t abandon them and leave them to be eaten. And we are programmed to respond. That’s why we get almost a physical pain when we hear our baby’s cry.
As far as your new baby is concerned they are expecting to have been born into a cold forest rife with woves and other dangers. If they let you put them down then their survival instinct tells them they will be eaten – or freeze to death. They only feel safe when held by you, preferably snuggled up skin-to-skin between Mum’s breasts.
And a healthy baby won’t be shy about reminding you of that!
As you might imagine the outside world is a very different place to the safe, snuggly womb. It is enormous, cold and full of diseases which a newborn isn't equipped to fight.
Protection from disease has begun in-utero with some (healthy!) bacterial colonisation but really begins in earnest with the birth. Baby is covered in (and swallows) bacteria from the birth canal (in the ideal scenario) which can begin to colonise their skin and gastrointestinal tract. The process is continued though skin-to-skin contact where Mum’s local bacteria can transfer to the new baby and begin to teach their immune system ‘bad’ from ‘good’. Baby licks and nuzzles Mum’s skin transferring some inside but the lion’s share of the inside work is done by the colostrum – those golden drops.
It turns out that those precious tiny drops are the perfect food for a healthy microbiome and a healthy microbiome is essential for a healthy life. Supporting the ‘good’ bacteria to colonise while providing a ready-made army to fight the ‘bad’ ones which inevitably find their way in. This passive immunity is vital while the immature immune system in the baby is being primed.
So perhaps thinking of colostrum as food for the microbiome – rather than the baby – may provide some explanation and reassurance to parents anxious to do the very best for their new baby. Colostrum itself is much lower in energy, fat and carbs, than mature milk so clearly hasn’t evolved with solely ‘feed the baby’ in mind.
Enormous physical changes happen in both the baby and mother over the first few days and this involves quickly developing needs. Focussing on thinking of ways to help the baby fulfil its need for protection may be a more helpful approach than obsessing over “have they eaten enough” in the very first hours of life.