Ask The Doctor

What happens when a baby loses its mother at birth?

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By Vincent Karuhanga

Posted  Monday, June 2   2014 at  01:00
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Dear Doctor: I always hear stories about babies losing their mothers in infancy and then being taken to their grandparents for caretaking. Is it true these grandparents breastfeed these babies? Dr Stephen Onyaiti

Dear Onyaiti: When a person produces milk unrelated to the normal milk production of breast-feeding, they are said to exhibit galactorrhoea. The unusual milk production can occur in women, even those who have never had children or after menopause, in men and even in newborns.

The condition often results from increased levels of prolactin, a hormone produced by the brain’s pituitary gland. This hormone that stimulates milk production can also be increased by excessive breast stimulation, medication side effects or disorders of the brain’s pituitary gland. That said, any condition that upsets the balance of hormones in the blood or the production of hormones by the pituitary gland or sexual organs can stimulate the production of prolactin.

Usually galactorrhoea is less common in women who have reached menopause due to lack of oestrogen which develops the breasts in preparation for milk production, and when it occurs it may indicate breast disease especially cancer.

It is true some young mothers may give birth around the same time with their daughters and here, a grandmother breastfeeding her own together with the bereaved’s grandchild would not be a problem. In cases where the grandmothers have reached menopause, it is said herbs may be given to stimulate breasts to produce milk again. It is well known that some herbs or even foods contain oestrogen-like properties (phytoestrogens).These, when taken, may prime the breasts to milk production.

Whether this milk is adequate or nutritious enough or not for the bereaved infant is another matter. It is true, that in the past when a baby lost its mother, witchcraft was mostly to blame and, therefore, the baby had to be protected by all means including withholding its feeding habits. Then, the grandmothers would claim they gave their own breast milk, which was not entirely true.