Breastfeeding vs. Formula-feeding

Motherhood comes with many important decisions to make, like oh, say—what to name your kid, for instance.

In all seriousness, parents (and mothers in particular) are faced with a variety of decisions which are at once highly impactful and highly personal, like this one:

The decision about whether and when to breastfeed versus formula-feed.

The Strong Case for Breastfeeding

By and large, research indicates that breastfeeding is the breast (er, best) method for feeding young infants. And while there’s no question that certain circumstances may lead a woman to choose or require the formula-feeding route, most doctors recommend breastfeeding as the preferred option.

The official stance of the World Health Organization is that “feeding should be initiated within the first hour after birth” and that “exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age.” The American Academy of Pediatrics goes so far as to say that breastfeeding “should be considered a public health issue and not only a lifestyle choice.”

This is a STRONG statement. Let’s look into this a bit:

Breast milk (and especially colostrum, the milk produced toward the end of pregnancy and within the first few days post-delivery) is a rich and unmatchable source of minerals, enzymes, cytokines, leukocytes, antibodies, nucleotides, lipids, oligosaccharides, immunoglobulins, and hormones. In other words, a woman’s breast milk has a bunch of immuno-protective substances which simply cannot be replicated in infant formula, no matter how high quality the formula is.

breastfeeding vs formula feeding

What is meant by immuno-protective? Basically, anything that helps a newborn infant’s immune system continue to develop and strengthen appropriately (and it already started developing in utero). These protective substances are extremely important for a young child, especially in the first week of his or her young life. Worth noting: the constituents of breast milk change as time goes on, with less and less of these immuno-protective substrates present as weeks and months pass.

Heck, a woman’s body is so darn clever, she can even up-regulate the amount of immunoglobulins and other substrates in her breast milk if her child is born prematurely! This incredible “immunological adaptation” was demonstrated in a 2005 study published in the Brazilian Journal of Infectious Diseases. In their study, mothers with preterm infants had significantly higher concentrations of immunoglobulins in their breast milk compared to women with babies who came to term. The authors logically concluded that a mother’s body can automatically adapt in order to provide the BEST possible support to an especially fragile and vulnerable infant.

See—you’re doing the best you possibly can for your children even when you don’t realize it!

Breastfeeding reduces the risk of neonatal infections (including gut, ear, and respiratory), sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and various other complications. And the act of breastfeeding itself, especially within the first hours and days of an infant’s life, also confers some noteworthy benefits: a reduced risk of breast/uterine cancer and postpartum hemorrhage for mom, a reduced risk of low blood sugar and low body temperature for baby, and of course, an ancient and sacred method of mother/child bonding and skin-to-skin contact.

When Formula-Feeding is Chosen

Of course, you can still bond with your infant even IF you formula-feed. And clearly, many women decide (or need) to use formula early on, in part or in total. This can be for a bevy of reasons ranging from medical necessity to personal choice—no one is here to pass judgment on that.

But check this:

Research published in the August 2018 volume of Social Science & Medicine – Population Health indicates that even the INTENT to breastfeed is beneficial to a baby. The infants in their study (n = 1008) had similar health outcomes whether they were breastfed or not provided that the formula-fed infants were born to mothers who reported an INTENT to breastfeed initially. The authors’ reasoned that “mothers who intended to breastfeed had more knowledge about potential food contaminants and consulted more sources of information about nutrition and diet than mothers who did not intend to breastfeed.”

This. THIS. This just gets us AMPED UP.

breastfeeding vs formula feeding

This research shows that women who empower themselves with knowledge and prepare for pregnancy by taking well-informed action can and do make significant impacts on their health and their children’s health. In the case of breastfeeding in particular, a woman who wants to but ultimately can’t breastfeed for whatever reason DOESN’T need to be hard on herself or run a guilt-trip. HARD no.

Fortunately, high-quality infant formulas WILL contain the necessary spectrum of essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients a growing infant needs, including carbs, fat, and protein (all of which are of course found naturally in breast milk, too). In other words, mothers who formula-feed will still be meeting their babies’ nutritional needs (even if they’re not getting the immune-boosting benefits of breast milk).

What kind of high-quality infant formula brands are we talking about? Mothers need to do their own research, check with their pediatricians first, and realize that what works for some babies won’t work for all. A few of the top brands we stumbled across with based on reviews, manufacturer, and ingredients include Earth’s Best Organic Infant Formula, Sammy’s Milk, and Baby’s Only Organic LactoRelief Formula.

Final Thoughts

Breastfeeding is the gold standard for infant nutrition. Many of the documented benefits of breast milk—including better immune health and even brain and eye development—just can’t be manufactured artificially in a formula, regardless of how good the formula is. And while there is some speculation about selection bias among relevant studies (that is, women who breastfeed are more likely to adopt other healthy lifestyle habits and beliefs which benefit infants anyway), exclusive breastfeeding within the first 6 months of life is still considered optimal across the board.

So, if you can breastfeed, breastfeed—especially within the first hour, the first week, and first six months of your baby’s life. The constituents of breast milk change over time, with the majority of the immuno-protective substances present in the earliest days and weeks of a child’s life. The sooner the better.

If you can’t breastfeed, or choose not to, realize that even though your baby may not be getting the unique immuno-protective benefits offered by breast milk, the child WILL still be getting all the nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and calories she or he needs for healthy development—we do want to make sure we are choosing high-quality formulas though.

Whenever and if ever you decide to give your child formula, it’s worth it to splurge on a high-quality one. Your child’s health is worth the extra investment for getting a high quality and organic product that’s free of crap ingredients.

Lastly, remember the ultimate goals here: nourishment and nurturing. Individual mothers must ultimately be the ones to decide what makes the most sense for themselves and their infants—and practice a lot of self-kindness in the process. We discuss topics like this in the “Mommons” (AKA Commons) section of Move Your Bump! With an instant support system of other women, this section of MYB is the perfect place to get input & advice from other moms and our community coaches! To see all that Move Your Bump has to offer, check out moveyourbump.mom.

Would you be willing to share your breastfeeding vs. formula-feeding experiences? Let us hear about it in the comments.