Is breastfeeding really better than formula for my baby’s health?
As soon as a newly pregnant woman sets foot in a doctor’s office with that joyful positive test, she’s told that she should breastfeed if she wants to give her baby the best possible start in life.
And it’s true that breastfeeding is a wonderful thing to do. Many women and babies have an easy, carefree breastfeeding experience that lasts for many months and often years. When breastfeeding works smoothly, it can provide happy memories for mom and natural, nutritional goodness for her baby.
But, sometimes, breastfeeding doesn’t go as smoothly as expected. And when it doesn’t, moms can often feel guilty about using formula, even though it’s a choice made with a lot of consideration.
Perhaps you’re finding breastfeeding difficult, or you’re worried that your baby isn’t getting enough milk from the breast. Or maybe you’re already formula feeding, and you’re not sure whether you’ve made the right choice.
Wherever you’re at now, it’s hard to feel that you’re not able to feed your baby in the way you wanted to.
It’s also hard not to feel a bit overwhelmed with breastfeeding information. There’s so much out there, so many scientific studies, so much advice. How can you possibly figure out which is the best way for you to feed your baby?
The benefits of breastfeeding
Breastfeeding has both long and short-term benefits for babies. These can include:
- Lower rates of infections, as breast milk contains antibodies that mean fewer colds and tummy bugs
- Lower rates of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
- Lower rates of childhood allergies such as asthma and eczema
- Lower rates of diabetes and obesity as adults
- Higher IQ and better educational achievements
Does this mean that you should be worried if you need to use formula?
Most babies are given formula at least some of the time. In fact, 75% of American babies have been given formula by the time they are six months old.
The data behind breastfeeding studies
The benefits of breastfeeding correlate pretty closely with the advantages children from wealthier homes have: higher IQ and lower levels of illness. And since wealthier moms are more likely to breastfeed...how can we tell what the benefits of breastfeeding really are?
Breastfeeding and IQ
This study of 5000 children aged five to 14 published in the British Medical Journal showed an IQ around four points higher breastfed babies – and many other similar studies show the same. But when the researchers also f controlled for wealth, the difference dropped to 1.6 IQ points. When they controlled for the mother’s IQ, the difference dropped to just 0.5 points. And when they compared siblings of whom one was breastfed and the other not, the IQ point difference dropped to 0.02 points.
Breastfeeding and sibling studies
Sibling studies are important in teasing out the benefits of breastfeeding. These look at two (or more) children brought up in the same family, in the same circumstances, where at least one is breastfed, and one not.
One study that looked at siblings (carried out at Ohio State University) looked at 1700 siblings aged four to 14.When they compared across families, the breastfed children had lower rates of obesity and asthma, and higher levels of intelligence and educational achievement.
But comparing siblings within families? They actually found very little difference between the two groups.
What about breastfeeding and SIDS?
You’ve probably read that there is a link between breastfeeding and SIDS – and understandably, that might be worrying for you if you’re thinking of using formula.
The science is clear that there is a correlation between lower rates of SIDS and breastfeeding, but it’s not clear exactly why. We do know that mixed-feeding has been found to be almost as protective against SIDS as exclusive breastfeeding.
We also know that following safe sleep guidelines is the most important thing. Make sure your baby has a safe cot that’s clear of toys and loose bedding, and always ask a health professional if you have any concerns – doctors and nurses are always happy to reassure worried moms.
Breastfeeding can protect against infection
Breastfed babies are less likely to develop gastro and ear infections.
This is particularly important for premature babies, who might find it hard to fight off those infections, and it’s part of the reason why hospitals have breastmilk banks for premature babies.
Healthy, full-term babies will usually be able to fight off minor infections easily, however they are fed.
Breastfeeding and moms’ health and happiness
What about moms?
It’s said that breastfeeding leads to faster weight loss after birth, with breastfeeding able to burn an extra 300 calories a day. Many breastfeeding moms find that they lose weight easily after birth, but others struggle to lose weight while breastfeeding. How this might work out for you is really individual, and both formula feeding and breastfeeding moms can find losing weight tough. Breastfeeding or not, a healthy diet is the key to losing weight.
We know that breastfeeding can help lower a woman’s risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer and osteoporosis. 12 months of breastfeeding reduces the breast cancer risk by 4.3%.
What about bonding? Many breastfeeding mothers find that breastfeeding is a lovely, calm experience that helps them develop a closer bond with their baby.
But that doesn’t mean that formula or mixed-feeding mothers don’t bond with their babies.
As moms, we all find our own, individual ways to bond with our babies – at feeding time, at playtime, and sometimes just when we’re gazing lovingly at their gorgeous little faces.
We bond with our babies naturally simply because they are there. It’s the knowledge that you’re loving and caring for your baby that counts.
Breastfeeding is fantastic...but formula is a healthy alternative
Formula was invented because breastfeeding doesn’t always work out as expected.
Milk supply can be late coming in, some babies struggle to feed because of a tongue tie or another physical issue, and some mothers have a low milk supply because of conditions such as PCOS, hyperthyroidism or previous breast surgery. Some moms find breastfeeding hard for emotional reasons.
And it’s for all these reasons that formula was developed, so that families are able to make the choice that works for them.
Before formula was invented, babies whose moms couldn’t breastfeed might have been fed untreated cow or goat milk, or something called ‘pap’ – mushed up bread and water (no doubt with a huge side order of harmful bacteria). Women who could afford it would use a wet nurse, and some would have had a close friend or relative on hand to help feed their baby.
But despite all these efforts, only one in three babies who weren’t breastfed made it to their first birthday pre-formula in the early 1800s in the UK. The invention of formula in 1865 meant that babies who would have otherwise died, survived.
Medical reasons for using formula
Sometimes, formula can be a useful tool for both moms and doctors.
A study in 2018 in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that babies who were losing significant amounts of weight after birth did better if they were given small formula top-ups. The babies given a top-up after each breastfeed were less likely to end up back in hospital for weight loss.
We also know that jaundice is more common in breastfed babies, usually when the baby isn’t getting enough milk due to low supply or tongue tie, and the mother hasn’t realised this is the case.
While mild jaundice isn’t dangerous, severe jaundice can cause brain damage, so it does need to be treated quickly. Doctors often recommend formula top-ups as a treatment for jaundice, helping to avoid hospital admission.
Is formula feeding safe for babies?
In developed countries, where everyone has access to clean water, formula is absolutely a safe choice. But, even with clean water, it must be made up carefully, following the instructions on the box, using sterilized bottles and equipment. Making up formula wrongly can be dangerous for tiny tummies.
That’s part of the reason why international health organizations such as the WHO recommend breastfeeding until the age of two. For those in developing countries, without regular access to clean water to make it with, formula-feeding can (of course) be risky.
Fed is best
If breastfeeding is important to you, but it’s not working out as you expected, there’s one thing you need to remember: your baby needs milk.
If you’re able to give them that milk by breastfeeding, and you and your baby are both happy and thriving, then that’s fantastic. Good for you!
If you’re struggling to breastfeed, and you want to switch or use formula top-ups, then that’s also fantastic. You’re giving your baby the nutrition they need to grow their little bodies and power up their developing brains.
Breastfeeding can be a beautiful experience, and provides naturally complete nutrition. But formula is designed to mimic breastmilk as closely as possible.
And if you’re feeling unsure about making the decision to formula feed? That’s completely normal. Many moms think ‘why can everyone else breastfeed except me?’. You’re not alone.
But remember: feeding is simply one small part of babyhood. When you have a newborn, it’s huge, but it’s just one very small part of a long and incredible adventure.
What’s really important is that a baby is fed in a way that means it gets all the nutrition it needs to grow into a healthy, happy toddler, child and adult; and that the mother is happy with her choices and able to live her life in the way she chooses.
For some babies and mothers, that means exclusive breastfeeding.
For some, it means mixed feeding.
And for some, it means exclusive formula.
If you’re worried your baby isn’t getting enough milk, or your baby has problems with their latch or a tongue-tie, then using formula can help you make sure they’re getting all the goodness they need to grow.
If you’re going back to work and you can’t be there to feed your baby 24/7, then you’ll either need to pump or use some formula. Some moms find pumping easy, but it just doesn’t work well for all of us. Formula can help ease the transition back to work, for both you and your baby (and either way, you’ll still get all those gorgeous sleepy snuggles when you get back home).
And using formula can also make it just a little bit easier for you to have a break when you need it. While you might not want to leave your baby yet, especially if they’re very young, it’s great to know that when you choose to, you can (especially if you’re one of those who finds pumping hard).
How can you make sure you’re getting the very best formula for your baby?
If you want to try formula feeding, or you’re already using formula but concerned that the formula you’re using isn’t the best possible choice for your baby, it’s important to think about which formula you choose to feed.
While all formula is regulated and will be nutritionally adequate, not all formula milks are equal, and some will suit some babies better than others.
Organic formula meets higher nutritional standards than most formula, and is:
- GMO free
- Pesticide free
- Made using natural, humane farming methods
- Free of unnecessary preservatives and additives.
There are also some types of formula that may not be certified organic but are made using very similar standards and methods, such as goat’s milk formula.
At My Organic formula, we only sell carefully selected European organic formula that meets these high standards. But even though every product in our store is nutritionally complete and as close to breastmilk as possible, we know there’s no accounting for tiny tastebuds!
Not every baby will like every formula. That’s why, if the formula you choose doesn’t work out, we’ll give you a we store credit to try another, making switching to European organic risk-free.
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