When a baby is born so early, there isn't much a parent can do—a truth that Lynn relearned each day when she went to the hospital to sit beside Reese. She couldn't pick her up. She couldn't rock her and cup her head in the palm of her hand. She couldn't kiss her forehead or whisper in her ear. She couldn't cradle her to her chest and feed her. But she could make sure that the milk her body was making would be ready and waiting for Reese to be fed.
From the moment she learned she was carrying triplets, Lynn knew there was a good chance the babies would have to fight for their lives. And she knew she could increase their odds by breastfeeding. Reese wasn't strong enough to nurse now, but the doctors believed she would be someday. So from the day Reese was born, Lynn began pumping breast milk. Wherever she went, she lugged her pump; it was like another appendage. A woman who pumps is said to be expressing her milk. For Lynn, it was one of the few physical ways she could express her love.
Though about 74 percent of American mothers start off breastfeeding, only about 12 percent are still nursing exclusively by the time their child is six months old, despite position statements from every major pediatric, family health, and public health organization that babies do best if they're fed only breast milk for six months and continue to nurse until at least their first birthday.
Human milk for human babies—that's how lactation experts sum it up. Although babies can and do thrive on formula, most formula is derived from cow's milk, and then—to make it resemble the composition of human milk—augmented with corn syrup, sugar, vitamins, minerals, and vegetable oils. But no amount of laboratory tinkering has yielded a way to infuse formula with the unique and potent cocktail of hormones, human growth factors, digestive enzymes, and antibodies that human milk conveys.
Because breast milk is composed of white blood cells that fight infection and stimulate the immune system, babies who receive human milk gain extra protection against illnesses such as pneumonia and staph infections. Premature babies in particular, prone as they are to infection, benefit from breast milk's immunological properties. Breastfed babies have fewer ear and respiratory tract infections, and less diarrhea. Studies indicate that they're less likely to get certain childhood cancers. They have a lower risk of developing diabetes, allergies, and possibly heart disease later in life. Some research even suggests that they can wind up with higher IQs.
When it works, human lactation is as automatic and easy as breathing, yet it's a finely calibrated physiological feat. The milk that a new mother produces in the first days after giving birth—a thick, protein-packed substance called colostrum—is typically present from about the fourth month of pregnancy. About three days after delivery, colostrum transitions to mature milk, which is higher in water, lactose, and fat content. And over the course of every subsequent feeding, that milk will transform itself again and again: At the start of each meal, it will be thin and watery; by the end, it will be rich and creamy. One more neat trick: As soon as the milk glands empty, the body gets to work refilling them. Demand creates supply—and the body doesn't care at all if a machine is the thing doing the demanding.