What Does Breast Milk Taste Like?

If Breastfed Babies Could Talk, What Would They Say About Their Mother's Milk?

If you spend any time around a breastfed baby, or if you’re anticipating the arrival of your own brand-new nursing baby, it’s natural to be curious about the taste of breast milk. There’s certainly no harm in tasting a little breast milk, but if sampling is not an option, human breast milk is somewhat similar in taste and consistency to cow’s milk, but considerably sweeter and thinner. However, there’s so much more to breast milk than can be detected by the taste buds, and learning about its characteristics and benefits is a fascinating introduction to the complexities of early infant development.

Breast Milk Characteristics

Close-up of a baby drinking milk in his mother's arms

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Breast milk has a sweet flavor because of its high amounts of lactose, or milk sugar. It also contains a lot of fat, which gives it a creamy consistency. When breast milk is pumped and stored, the fat separates from the liquid and rises to the top, but it’s easily mixed back in by swirling the storage container. A smaller amount of fat is in the milk produced earlier in a nursing or pumping session (the “foremilk”) than that produced later (the “hindmilk”), which is visibly thicker and creamier in texture.

Colostrum, the milk produced by a mother during the first days after giving birth, is different in appearance from mature breast milk. It’s considerably thicker, yellow rather than white, and is produced in a much smaller volume.

Although breast milk’s flavor and other characteristics are mostly uniform, subtle differences exist from mother to mother. A baby can recognize the unique smell of his mother’s milk from birth. The foods a nursing mother eats affect the flavors of her milk, as do changes in her hormones, medications she takes, and the buildup of lactic acid after any strenuous exercise. Freezing and thawing alter the taste and smell of breast milk, sometimes causing it to have a soapy smell. Caused by the presence of the enzyme lipase in the milk, the smell is harmless.

Nutrients in Breast Milk

Breast milk comprises a perfect, high-calorie mixture of protein, sugar, fat, water, vitamins and minerals required for a baby to grow and develop at a very rapid rate while staying healthy. It also contains enzymes that help the baby’s digestive system extract and use the nutrients present in the milk. Also notable is the presence of the brain-building compound taurine in high concentrations, a substance not present in formula or cow’s milk. Colostrum is higher in protein, lower in sugar and more densely packed with certain nutrients, including vitamin A and nitrogen, than mature breast milk. Breast milk’s exact composition changes every day in sync with the baby’s ever-evolving needs.

Furthermore, breast milk contains 37 known immune mechanisms that work to build a baby’s resistance to disease. They include protective bacteria, enzymes that attack and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria, protein binders, antiviral agents, and all known types of antibodies. These antibodies are specifically targeted to pathogens in the mother’s (and therefore the baby’s) immediate surroundings.

Experts are unable to come to a consensus on whether breast milk contains enough vitamin D and iron to meet all of a baby’s needs. Some pediatricians recommend supplementing these nutrients in exclusively breastfed babies.

Other Breast Milk Benefits

Close-up of a baby drinking milk in his mother's arms

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Studies show that when breastfeeding mothers eat a varied diet, their babies are more amenable to eating a wide variety of foods when they start solids. Babies also prefer the flavors of their parent’s most-often-eaten cuisines.

Babies who are breastfed for six months or more have a lower risk of developing asthma and allergies, fewer respiratory illnesses, digestive problems and ear infections, and fewer doctor visits than babies who are not breastfed. Some studies link higher IQ scores and a lower risk of obesity and diabetes later in life to breastfeeding.

Breast milk is free, always available and always the perfect temperature. Common wisdom says it’s impossible to overfeed a breastfed baby, as the baby will simply stop eating when he is satisfied. As a result, breastfed babies grow at a healthy rate.

All major medical groups, nationally and internationally, recommend breastfeeding for at least six months. Among them are the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization and UNICEF.