Making a decision based on the benefits and drawbacks of breastfeeding vs. formula feeding is one of the most challenging decisions new parents make while feeding their newborns.
Experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding for babies in the first six months as it is the best way for infants and newborns to get the required nutrients, and it offers great health benefits. However, some parents may want to give formulas a try. In such cases, being aware of the facts and details of breastfeeding and formula feeding can help make the right choice for your baby.
Read on to discover the pros and cons of breastfeeding and formula feeding to choose a suitable feeding method for your baby.
Breast milk is a tailored food that offers optimum nourishment to babies. It is why apex health organizations, such as WHO, strongly recommend mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life. It is recommended to continue breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond while providing the toddler a well-balanced diet of solid food (1). The eminent reasons for these recommendations are the several well-documented benefits of breastfeeding for the baby and mother (2).
Benefits Of Breastfeeding For The Baby
Breast milk is an easy-to-digest, conveniently available food that’s free of cost. It works like a personalized diet that adjusts to the different needs of different babies.
Here are some pros of breastfeeding for babies.
1. Offers optimum nutrition: Breast milk is a nutrient-rich food offering carbs, long-chain polyunsaturated fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, such as calcium, to babies. Infants need these nutrients for healthy growth and development.
2. Helps develop taste: Research shows that infants get acquainted with the taste/flavor of several foods through the amniotic fluid and breast milk. In addition, it allows them to accept various foods during weaning easily (3).
3. Boosts immunity: Breastfeeding provides nutrients and essential components, such as antibodies, probiotics, and prebiotics, strengthening the baby’s immunity (4) (5). Healthy breastfed babies have fewer infections than formula-fed infants. Also, they get protection from health issues, such as diarrhea, meningitis, allergies, obesity, diabetes, and SIDS (6).
4. Promotes digestive health: Breast milk contains oligosaccharides (prebiotics) and live microbes (probiotics) that work together (synbiotic effect) to boost an infant’s digestive health (7). Babies with a healthy digestive system digest food properly and have fewer gastrointestinal issues. Also, a healthy gut is a prerequisite for a robust immune system.
5. Boosts neurodevelopment: A study reflected that breast milk positively affects a child’s brain development and IQ in mid-childhood. Furthermore, the study suggests that the beneficial effects of breast milk are likely due to DHA (8). Thus, DHA is vital to support proper vision and neurodevelopment in babies.
6. Promotes preemie’s growth and development: Breast milk helps preemies and severely sick babies gain weight, fight infections, and grow well. Mothers of premature babies produce breast milk with higher proteins, minerals, antibodies, and fats that are easy to digest and absorb (9).
7. Protects from NEC: Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a life-threatening intestinal disease common in premature newborns. Research shows that exclusive breastfeeding in preemies lowers the rate of NEC, reducing the NICU stay duration (10).
Benefits Of Breastfeeding For The Mother
Breastfeeding holds myriad benefits for you, and the longer you breastfeed, the more benefits you reap.
1. Brings emotional satisfaction: The sucking action and skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding causes the release of hormones, such as oxytocin, prolactin, and endorphins (feel good or happy hormone). These hormones make the mother happy and help foster the mother-child bonding. Breastfeeding the baby and tending to their needs also boosts the mother’s confidence as a caregiver.
2. Lowers postpartum depression risk: Postpartum depression affects one in seven women and can develop at any time in the first year postpartum (11). However, skin-to-skin contact and sucking action bring hormonal changes that relax the mother, reduce anxiety, and lower postpartum depression risk (12).
3. Supports long-term health: Breastfeeding burns calories, and it may help mothers lose weight postpartum. Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for avoiding chronic health issues, such as type-2 diabetes. Besides, it can bring positive hormonal changes that cause the uterus to shrink to its original size.
Additionally, several hormonal changes during breastfeeding could reduce breast and ovarian cancer risk in the long run (13).
Potential Problems Of Breastfeeding
Breastfeeding is healthy and safe, but it does come with some concerns (13).
- Nursing in the first few days or weeks after childbirth could be discomforting since your body is still adjusting to the postpartum period. However, it resolves as your body recovers. If you are having excess pain while breastfeeding, you may need to adjust the placement of the baby or see if there is any tongue ties preventing them from latching. Ask your lactation consultant or pediatrician for any tips they may have.
- You may experience issues, such as breast engorgement or cracked nipples. These issues are bothersome but resolvable under a lactation consultant’s guidance.
- Breastfeeding requires you to limit caffeine and alcohol intake since they can pass through the milk to the baby. These limitations are manageable. Besides, you have several other delicious beverages, such as lactation smoothies, to drink.
- Lactating mothers may feel anxious about returning to work. But you need not worry much about it since you may pump and store breast milk to feed the baby later. You can also enlist the help of a family member or caregiver to feed expressed milk to the baby.
When breast milk isn’t available, iron-fortified formula use is advisable. Formula milk is a tailored food prepared to partially or entirely substitute breast milk. The US FDA mandates commercial formulas to contain all the necessary nutrients in the appropriate amounts, but it has its pros and cons.
Advantages Of Formula Feeding
1. Allows a caregiver to feed: Unlike breastfeeding, formula feeding can be done by any family member or caregiver. In addition, it provides other family members, such as the father or siblings, the chance to bond with the baby.
2. Provides you with me-time: Since anyone at home can do formula feeding, it gives you some time to be by yourself and rest. This relaxation holds even for nighttime feeding, which anyone in the family can do on your behalf if you aren’t feeling well.
3. Makes it easier to schedule feeds: The formula stays in the tummy for longer. Thus, unlike breastfeeding, formula feeding doesn’t need to be frequent. It gives you the flexibility to schedule the feedings more conveniently.
4. Helps track baby’s intake: Knowing the quantity of breast milk that was fed may be difficult when breastfeeding. However, formula is fed in measured quantities, and you will know precisely how much formula a baby consumed in one feed. It makes it easier to keep track of the total volume of formula consumed by the baby in a day, ensuring adequate dietary intake of vital nutrients.
Besides these benefits, formula feeding grants you the freedom to eat or drink anything you want without worrying about its effects on your baby.
Potential Downsides Of Formula Feeding
The following are some notable drawbacks of formula feeding (14).
1. The formula doesn’t contain immunological and other essential components, such as antibodies, enzymes, and hormones. It is why it doesn’t offer protection against infections and health issues as breast milk does.
2. Infant formula composition doesn’t change as breast milk does to meet the baby’s changing needs. It may lead to gastrointestinal issues, such as constipation and gas, in some babies.
3. Formula feeding requires cleaning and sterilizing bottles, nipples, and feed preparation, which is additional work for a parent or caregiver. Another hassle is carrying all the feeding accessories and formula while traveling.
4. Careful preparation of formula feed is crucial. Adding too much or too little water can disturb the gastrointestinal system, resulting in diarrhea and dehydration. You may consider pre-made formulas, but they are expensive.
5. Formula preparation requires caution and adequate hygiene, such as the use of boiled water. It may not be possible to maintain optimum hygiene when preparing formulas while traveling.
6. The formula and feeding accessories, such as feeding bottles, teats/nipples, and breast pumps, are expensive and add to your expenditure.
Now that you have some insights into the two feeding methods, let’s see the scenario where you may feed both breast milk and formula to your baby.
Combined Or Mixed Feeding
Most mothers feed their babies breast milk or formula. However, some need to use both feeding methods simultaneously. One of the common reasons for it is low or insufficient breast milk supply. If you have a low milk supply, check about mixed feeding with your doctor.
While you are mixed feeding the baby, keep trying to boost your milk supply. In most cases, when breast milk supply improves, one can gradually cease formula feeding. Before you stop formula feeding for your baby, consult your lactation consultant and let them evaluate the sufficiency of milk supply.
Breast milk, formula, or mixed feeding, can be chosen depending on your baby’s nutritional needs and your ability to breastfeed. Remember that the feeding method should offer optimal nourishment and support to the baby’s long-term health.
Consult your healthcare provider or lactation consultant to consider your options. Every case is different and you should not compare your experience to others’. Make sure you ask your pediatrician any questions you may have so they can guide you along the way!
2. Recommendations and Benefits;CDC
3. Rebecca L. Dunn and Rachelle Lessen;The Influence of Human Milk on Flavor and Food Preferences Springer Link
4. How your baby’s immune system develops; Pregnancy, Birth and Baby
5. Lila S. Nolan et al.;The Role of Human Milk Oligosaccharides and Probiotics on the Neonatal Microbiome and Risk of Necrotizing Enterocolitis: A Narrative Review; NCBI
6. All your questions on breastfeeding answered;UNICEF
7. S Musilova et al.;Assessment of the synbiotic properties of human milk oligosaccharides and Bifidobacterium longum subsp. infantis in vitro and in humanised mice;NCBI
8. Rita Amiel Castro et al.;Breastfeeding, prenatal depression and children’s IQ and behaviour: a test of a moderation model;BMC
9. Providing Breastmilk for Premature and Ill Newborns;AAP
10. Research On Necrotising Enterocolitis;UNICEF
11. Postpartum Depression & Breastfeeding;AAP
12. The importance of skin-to-skin with baby after delivery;Sanford Health
13. Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding;Kids Health From Nemours
14. Breastfeeding and formula feeding;BPAS