Editorial ↵

The importance of consuming milk during pregnancy

Traditionally, pregnant and lactating mothers have been advised to drink 2 glasses of milk a day.  What is the rationale behind this? Is it just an “old wives” tip or is there any scientific basis to this advice? Is milk good for the mother or for the developing baby? What about women who cannot  have milk (lactose intolerant)? Read more to find out the answers to these questions…

Composition of Milk

Let us start by understanding the composition of milk. Milk consists primarily of the following: 87% water, 3.5% protein, 3.5% fat, 5% lactose, 1% minerals and vitamins. The main minerals in milk are calcium, phosphorus, iodine, magnesium,  potassium, sodium, manganese, selenium, zinc and copper. The vitamins in milk are Vitamin A,  B and D.

Role of various components of milk in Pregnancy

Milk protein is a very good quality and is the main source of protein amongst vegetarians. Milk  proteins are of two types – whey (20%) and casein (80%). Both are excellent because they  contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient amounts required for growth and repair, two  essential functions of proteins. In fact, milk provides a better quality protein than beef, soy or wheat. Since the fetal growth and development is progressing at a fast pace during pregnancy, the availability of good quality protein is vitally essential.

The lactose provides the carbohydrates which give energy, so vital in maintaining the life processes. Lactose intolerant women are deficient in the enzyme lactase that is required to digest the lactose in milk. Hence, they cannot tolerate milk.

Calcium is the main mineral in milk and it is necessary for building bones, teeth and muscle in the baby. Also, adequate milk intake is vital to maintain good bone density in the mother and to prevent osteopenia.

Iodine is extremely important in the production of the hormone thyroxine. Thyroxine is the hormone required for growth and metabolism; hence it is vital to the developing fetus. In particular, it has a direct effect on the fetal brain, thus deficiency of iodine can lead to lower IQs and reading disabilities.

The other minerals like magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and copper are all required in various other enzymes / hormones that take part in metabolic processes in the mother and the developing fetus.

Vitamin D is the wonder vitamin which is now known to influence the development of many organs and involved in various processes. It is the key to calcium absorption and bone mineralisation. Thus, adequate amounts of Vitamin D are essential for the mother’s health. Additionally, latest research shows that Vitamin D plays a role in fetal growth and deficiency of Vitamin D leads to low birth weight babies.

Vitamin B and folic acid are also important in normal fetal development and deficiency of these can lead to birth defects and growth problems.

Benefits of drinking milk during pregnancy

From all the above data, it is clear that drinking 2-3 glasses of milk per day during pregnancy has major health benefits to the mother and her developing baby. Studies prove that drinking milk improves the mother’s health in terms of good bone density, thus reducing the risk of osteopenia, which commonly causes the “backache” associated with pregnancy. For the baby, it ensures good physical and mental development – adequate weight gain in utero, good IQ, strong bones and teeth.

However, the important fact to note is that the benefits of maternal milk consumption for the baby continue into teenage and adulthood. Research published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows that teenagers of both genders were generally taller if their mothers had consumed more than 150 mls milk per day during that pregnancy. Also, these teenagers had higher levels of insulin in their blood, suggesting that they were less at risk of developing type II diabetes in adulthood.

So what about women who are lactose intolerant?

Some women have trouble digesting the lactose in milk, this leads to flatulence and diarrhoea. Hence, they are unable to consume adequate quantities of milk. So they can try to drink small quantities of milk with meals. The other contents like fibre and fat in the food can help them to digest the lactose better. Other alternatives to plain milk are milk products such as cheese and yoghurts. Low fat cheese is especially good as lactose is reduced during the processing of cheese. Yoghurts contain active lactobacillus cultures, which help to digest the lactose in milk. Home-made yoghurt, frozen yoghurts, fruity yoghurts are all options for lactose intolerant women.

Can drinking milk cause too much weight gain in the mother?

Some mothers are particularly worries about the 3.5% fat content of milk, which can lead them to avoid milk consumption in adequate amounts. Alternatives like low fat milk are the easy solution to this concern. Low fat milk contains all the goodness of milk including the protein, vitamins and
minerals, but reduced fat. Calcium fortified milk is also available, which can be used to boost calcium intake.

In summary, the benefits of drinking milk during pregnancy include:

  • Good protein intake, improved maternal general nutrition and fetal growth
  • Good calcium intake promoting strong bones and teeth in mother and baby
  • Good Vitamin D intake allowing for calcium absorption and deposition into bone, preventing osteopenia in mothers, improved intelligence, height and weight in the baby
  • Good Iodine and other trace mineral intake necessary for optimal metabolism, especially thyroxine production, which is also linked to good brain development in the baby
  • Benefits into teenage and adulthood in terms of improved height of reduced risk of diabetes

Thus, you can see that drinking milk is scientifically proven to be of major benefit to the pregnant
mum and her developing fetus…it is not just a myth.