New mothers are often told the same piece of advice when it comes to their baby’s health and well-being – breast is best. We champion breastfeeding as one of the most rewarding and natural experienced that a mother can share with her child. There have long been those that prefer the idea of breastfeeding because of concerns over the impact of formula milk as a substitution. Medical professionals will also say that this is the healthiest option because of the make-up of breast milk. So, what are the benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child? Is this still the optimal option for new parents?
The benefits of breastfeeding vs formula feeding.
In this guide, I want to explore some of the different benefits of breastfeeding and using breast milk to feed your child. I will start with a few of the main benefits for your baby, such as the health benefits of drinking breast milk over formula. Then I will look at some of the potential benefits of breastfeeding for mothers. From there, I also want to discuss the options of using breast milk in bottles or a combination of breast milk and formula. I think this is important because I appreciate that while we are all encouraged to be exclusive on breast milk for six months, that isn’t an option for everyone. Finally, I will consider the pros and cons of the formula to provide some balance.
The aim here is not to feed into that stigma about one option being best for everyone. Instead, I want to help inform and show different sides of the argument. While we can agree that breast milk and breastfeeding is ideal, we need to consider those other approaches.
What are the benefits of breastfeeding for babies?
Let’s start with those potential benefits for babies that take milk from the breast for those six months. There are many good reasons why hospitals and pediatricians will encourage breastfeeding and use lactation consultants to help new mothers. Where possible, those that struggle with latch-on pain or milk production may find that it is better to keep trying than to give up too early. With the right support, mothers can offer the most nutritious food source and help with a surprising number of long-term benefits.
That said, there is no guarantee that breast milk protects your child entirely from some of the issues raised, or that formula will cause them to happen. It is all about a reduction in rates and a little extra protection. Here are some of the top benefits of breastfeeding for your baby.
1) The nutritional benefits of the milk.
Breastfeeding offers access to the colostrum right after birth. This milk is high in protein, low in sugar and full of vitamins and nutrients. From there, babies get the ideal balance in their diet from breast milk until it is time to wean onto other foods. Your body knows the best approach as your child develops.
2) The chance to protect babies from illness and diseases.
Then there are the antibodies in the breast milk for a better immune system from day 1. Any antibodies generated by the mother to protect against viruses and bacteria are then passed on through the milk, and this is specifically high in the colostrum. Studies show that infection and illness rates are lower in babies that breastfed. Those exclusively fed this way from 6 months see a 63% less likely to get cold and ear or throat infections https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20566605. The risk of hospitalization reduces by up to 72% https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17764214. There is a 52% reduction in the risk of celiac disease https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16287899. Also, there are links related to a reduction in SIDS https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17764214.
3) The encouragement of healthier eating habits.
Leptin in breast milk is important for appetite regulation and dealing with fat storage. There is more of this in breast milk than in formula, which can, therefore, lead to a reduced risk of unhealthy weight gain and poor eating habits. There is also greater self-regulation in babies that breastfeed over those bottle-fed. They can learn when to stop feeding instead of having to take more from the bottle.
4) Breastfeeding and brain development.
There has long been the idea that those that are on formula are more likely to end up with behavioral or learning difficulties as they develop. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. We can’t see a big divide between the smartest and less intelligent in the population and the decision to breastfeed. That said, you can’t deny that DHA levels are typically higher in breast milk.
5) Getting kids used to different tastes.
This is an interesting benefit that I hadn’t initially considered. When you buy formula, you will typically get the exact same consistency and taste each time with the same product. But, breast milk can alter depending on the diet of the mother. These alterations, however subtle, can teach babies to develop their pallets from an earlier age. As a result, it seems that children breastfed aren’t always such fussy eaters as they grow up.
What about the benefits of breastfeeding for the mother?
Of course, it isn’t just the baby that will see the benefits of breastfeeding. Many mothers can enjoy physical, mental and emotional health benefits from choosing to breastfeed their child. While it can be difficult at first, and there are often complications, many that persist and find their routine get a lot out of the experience. It can be highly rewarding to know that you have that connection and a direct source of nourishment for your child. In addition to that, there are also more practical benefits for new mothers.
1) Skin and skin contact and bonding with your child
This is one of the most commonly mentioned benefits of breastfeeding felt by both mother and child. The bonding experience with your child is something that is difficult to describe, but it comes more easily to some mothers than others. The process of feeding and having that skin on skin contact is one of the best ways to intensify that bond and let babies know that you are their provider of love, care and security.
2) The health benefits for the mother.
It is easy to focus on the health benefits of breastfeeding for the child. But, there are also potential benefits for the mother too. There are links between breastfeeding and uterine health. This means a reduced risk of developing conditions after birth and the process of breastfeeding can also help to shrink the uterus. This means that it is even easier for parents to reach their pre-pregnancy size and weight. It is ideal for those self- conscious about the way they look.
3) It is more cost-effective.
It might sound silly to say that breast milk is better because it is free. But, there are lots of costs involved in alternative solutions. Here babies can have as much as they need, when they need it, which no need for any shop-bought produce. It is one less financial consideration to worry about.
4) It is always there when you need it.
Finally, there is the fact that this is such a reliable takeaway food service for a lot of parents. You don’t have to worry about making up bottles and packing them in your bags when heading out. You aren’t going to find yourself caught out somewhere without any milk on you if your child is happy taking milk from the breast. An additional consideration here is that the world has become more open to the idea of mothers breastfeeding in public in a respectable way, Cafes welcome mothers as long as they cover-up. Society more generally isn’t so put off. Although there will always be some that want to get offended.
We recommend you watch this quick video from AAMCNews on the benefits of breastfeeding.
Exclusive breastfeeding or exclusive breast milk?
You will often see this idea that parents should stick with exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months for the best results. But what does this really mean for parents and what is the best approach. Should mothers always make sure that their child takes milk exclusively from the breast for that period? Or, it is OK for them to take breast milk from the bottle?
The benefits mentioned above certainly suggest that breastfeeding is the best option because of all those additional psychological benefits and the physical impact on the mother. Using breast milk in a bottle can offer many of the same benefits for the child as they get the same milk with the same nutrients and vitamins.
While there will be fewer benefits from the perspective of bonding, you can still get the same health benefits by pumping the milk and having that ready to use as needed in a bottle. So, it might not be so bad if exclusive breastfeeding isn’t practical.
Which is the most effective and practical method for your needs?
One thing that I want to mention here is the amount of scaremongering that there is for parents that don’t breastfeed their children. There are too many stories from parents that buy formula at the store to receive snide remarks or bad looks from strangers for their choice.
I encourage those struggling with this subject to read this blog from the Harvard Medical journal. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/why-we-shouldnt- demonize-formula-feeding-2018040313557. While breast milk is best from a health perspective, breastfeeding isn’t always practical or a biological option. So, it is important that while we celebrate and promote the benefits of breastfeeding for children and mothers, we don’t demonize those who do use formula.
There is sometimes such a positive notion around breastfeeding that those that aren’t new parents forget that there are other factors to consider. There will always be women that struggle to produce milk or where breastfeeding just isn’t an option. In some cases, there isn’t a choice. Women that have poor milk production need to use formula supplementation.
Women that had mastectomies need alternatives too. Exclusive breastfeeding doesn’t allow for bottle feeds from other family members when you are ill or trying to rest. Of course, there are then the couples that cant go through a pregnancy that brings up their biological children from a surrogate mother.
So when it is OK to use formula?
If you want to use formula or feel that you have no choice, this is absolutely fine as long as you choose the right products. Your pediatrician and other healthcare providers should be able to guide you on which works for your body, for your baby’s health, and around your personal circumstances.
The use of formula can come about in one of two ways. Either babies get a little breast milk with additional feeds with formula, or they get a purely formula based option. The choice will depend on what you can produce, who is responsible for feeding the child and the flexibility of your schedule.
What does the use of formula mean when we consider all of those benefits of breast milk?
Naturally, there are going to be concerns about antibody counts in your baby’s feeds as this level of protection is not available in the formula. As we saw above, the risks of developing a lot of illnesses and conditions when using breast milk reduce. That might not be so likely with formula. But, that doesn’t mean that you are putting your child at a massive risk either, especially if you choose the right products.
There are lots of formula products that contain vitamins, minerals and other helpful nutrients like DHA. The formula isn’t going to be devoid of healthy and helpful ingredients. There is too much competition to create the best, most effective and award-winning options around between the brands. Just be aware that it isn’t going to offer quite the same protections.
What are the downsides of a formula-only diet for babies?
I do have to talk about the downsides of opting for a purely formula-based feeding regime because there are possible issues to be aware of here. When you take breast milk out of the equation entirely, you run the risk of missing out on a lot of health benefits. There are also the downsides associated with constant bottle feeding and the acquisition of the right products. They include the following.
1) Gas and digestive problems.
Babies that are bottle-fed on formula can develop a lot more digestive problems and gas build-ups because of the consistency of the formula, the make-up of the milk and the method of feeding. A lot of that can come down to the bottles and the amount of air that gets trapped in them. The benefits of breastfeeding do mean that you are less likely to see such pain and distress.
2) There are health risks with none of that breast milk in the mix.
If you decide not to add any breast milk at all into your feeding regime, you could see a big difference in the make-up of nutrients and ingredients in their diet. DHA, calcium and omega levels could drop considerably unless you are careful with the products you choose. There is also the fact that a lot of formulas have a much higher sugar content with corn syrup in the mix. This could be an issue that adds to those risks I mentioned before with unhealthy weight gain. Always check the formula ingredients and consult medical professionals when you aren’t sure what to get.
3) That lack of skin on skin contact.
You also won’t get the same contact with your child if you don’t breastfeed. The skin on skin contact and the sound of your calming heartbeat is important to your baby. The bottle may act as a barrier there where you don’t have the same close feeling with your child. Those that are struggling with the bonding process could have a harder time with formula and bottle feeding alone. Therefore, there could be additional issues for women struggling with postpartum depression and other related mental health issues after the birth of their child.
4) Formula diets are more costly.
One of the clear negative issues here with these types of formula is the cost. You can end up paying a lot for one tub of a premium formula that tries its best to replicate the feel and nutrients of breast milk. Over time, this will add up significantly. Opt for something cheaper and you might run the risk of a nutrient-poor solution or other issues. Then there are other costs of getting the bottles, nipples and everything else for the right feeding and cleaning routine.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t great formula options out there.
There is no doubt that formula products have become far more diverse and beneficial over time. There are lots of options out there with different formulas and approaches where you can help to minimize risks and deal with specific health problems. Some of those include the best formulas for gassy babies, which you can read about in my guide, and those that plant-based or for lactose allergies. But, these products are still costly and will struggle to offer the same levels of nutrients as breast milk.
The potential benefits of a mixture of breast milk and formula.
I want to end by looking at this mixture of breast milk and formula so that we don’t disregard the potential benefits of formula here. The right products can provide a mix with similar nutrients and consistencies to breast milk and while they aren’t as beneficial on their own, they can help to create feeds when milk supplies are low without too many negative effects. This choice to go for a combination can make a lot of sense to parents that need flexibility and support. Potential benefits here include the following.
1) Reduced stress for the mother.
There is such a focus sometimes on the emotional benefits of breastfeeding that we forget how stressful it can be to always have to feed on demand, or to struggle to produce enough milk. This can lead to a bit of a vicious cycle where increased stress makes it even harder to produce. Varied feeds can lower that pressure and stress.
2) The flexibility of the feeds.
This also leads to great flexibility on the feeding schedule so you can look after your own needs and those of others, not just your newborn. If you are a busy professional woman that can’t take six months away from work, exclusive breastfeeding won’t work. A flexible approach lets others step in to help feed.
3) Fewer risks of contamination from other substances.
Finally, there may be less concern over the diet of the mother and medications. One downside of breastfeeding is that your baby will get a taste of whatever you eat and ingest. This means that there are risks from substances like alcohol and caffeine, but also from medications and herbal remedies. Therefore, if you become ill and take something to help your recovery, this might leave trace amounts in the milk. The use of formula during these times could reduce that risk.
The benefits of breastfeeding vs the use of formula.
There is no doubt that breastfeeding benefits are substantial. If mothers have the opportunity to give their child access to this milk, and to do so from the breast, then it can provide many physical, emotional and mental health benefits. The nutrients in the milk could help with growth, development and disease prevention. The contact between you can help you both bond with greater ease. Then there are the potential advantages for your own physical health after the birth.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is going to give your child the best possible start. But, it isn’t the only option so don’t stress out if you struggle to produce milk or know that your unborn child won’t have access to any. Mixed diets of breast milk and formula can still be healthy and nutritious. Even the right formula-only diet can be perfectly fine with the right products. Ultimately, you need to do what is best for both of you.