At the core of the breastfeeding vs formula debate lies the question:
is formula or mother’s milk best?
Let’s dive in to search for answers.
From the first moment a newborn enters the world, the most important source of comfort and safety is his or her mother’s embrace. This is where they are cuddled, kissed, snuggled, and of course – fed.
While breastfeeding is still regarded by doctors around the globe as the preferred method of feeding for newborns, increasingly more new mothers are experiencing breastfeeding challenges and need solutions. Thankfully, technological advancements offer a growing number of alternatives.
The breastfeeding vs formula debate is a contentious topic with significant nuance on both sides. The reason(s) why a mother chooses to (or not to) breastfeed are hers alone and may vary due to lifestyle choices or medical factors. Additionally, this decision might be further influenced by personal upbringing and background, or other societal pressures signaling new mothers to breastfeed or not to breastfeed.
However, it’s undeniable the act of breastfeeding releases a plethora of chemicals and neurotransmitters (most importantly, oxytocin) which help a mother and newborn form a strong parent-child bond.
How does breastfeeding benefit mother and baby?
Breastfeeding provides several physiological and psycho-emotional benefits for you and your baby. Many mothers who can choose to exclusively breastfeed believe it’s an irreplaceable part of motherhood; no matter how much medicine and technology advance, it simply can’t be substituted.
At the moment, breastmilk remains the best source of nutrition a newborn can have, as it’s uniquely suited for them in terms of raw nutritional value and ease of digestion.
Breastfeeding reduces risk of infection
Due to the mechanics of breastfeeding (requiring your little one to create a strong, rhythmic sucking pressure to enable flow), breastfed babies maintain better aeration of the Eustachian tube. This, in turn, significantly decreases the risk of ear infections and related health conditions.
Additionally, the cocktail of antibodies contained in a mother’s breastmilk immunizes her baby against infections for the entire duration of breastfeeding. This is critical for the child’s health and wellbeing, as babies can’t be vaccinated until they’re a year old (however, some vaccines can be given as early as 9 months). In countries where medical facilities are lacking and subpar, breastfeeding is absolutely essential to any newborn’s survival.
Breastfeeding supports better maternal health outcomes
In addition to numerous health benefits for the newborn, the mother benefits immensely from breastfeeding. Many studies show the release of oxytocin during breastfeeding postpones a woman’s menstrual cycle, which in turn is connected to a lower incidence of premenopausal ovarian and breast cancer.
Additionally, it’s great stress relief for mothers who cherish the intimacy and bond-building time spent with their little one while breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is an economically sound choice
Breastfeeding remains the cheapest (virtually free) option for feeding a newborn. According to a study published by Maternal and Child Health Journal, exclusive breastfeeding provides significant savings to families in several US states. This is imperative for mothers who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds where budgets are tight. This unexpected benefit is shown incrementally through fewer health complications and medical costs for treating them.
What breastfeeding alternatives are available?
Today, there are more breastfeeding alternatives than ever before. While some of these alternatives have century-old traditions, as times have changed some have fallen out of favor, while others have reemerged in popularity. What’s important is to keep an open mind when considering your choice.
At times, a breastfed baby might need to be supplemented with an additional source of nutrients due to various reasons, such as:
- failure to gain weight
- failure to latch on
- premature birth
- the mother suffers from sore nipples
- ankyloglossia (tongue-tie)
Formula feeding has gained significant praise and attention from mothers the world over due to its convenience and ease of use. It requires little to no effort to prepare and feed with formula. On top of ease of use, formula companies are constantly searching for new ways to make it resemble breastmilk as much as possible, especially in terms of micro and macronutrients.
In a recent clinical trial, it was discovered that adding an ingredient related to the membrane of fat globules in milk might improve cognitive development in newborns better than formula without it. This is great news for mothers unable to breastfeed – companies still investing in research and development of new ingredient proportions allows their little ones the best possible nursing outcomes.
One of the reasons baby formula is so popular is because anyone can prepare and feed it (i.e. other family members or friends, daycare caretakers), allowing a continuously stable feeding schedule.
Some moms choose to exclusively formula feed their little ones, and that’s okay!
Donor milk (Wet nursing)
Donor milk provides all the benefits of human milk without breastfeeding. An ancient practice, it was quite common for the children of rich families to be wet nursed by other women. The socio-cultural implications of wet nursing have changed over time, but it’s still used today in one form or another.
One such new form is donor milk banks. Donor milk banks rigorously screen and pasteurize donations made by altruistic lactating mothers, making their milk safe for another baby’s consumption. This is the closest to breastfeeding a newborn can get when a mother is unable to do so for any reason.
Syringe-feeding, pump and bottle-feeding
When a baby can’t be breastfed, bottle-feeding and syringe-feeding might be a suitable alternative. These methods focus on tackling the mechanical challenges of feeding. Pumping and bottling/syringe-feeding are significantly more delicate and time-consuming due to increased risk of a mechanical injury to the newborn. However, with a little practice and proper instructions, they’re quite effective!
Is there a right choice between breastfeeding or using alternatives?
The choice of whether to exclusively breastfeed or not remains wholly in the mother’s hands. While breastfeeding remains the most natural option – with numerous benefits for mother and child – each feeding journey is a story of its own. Some moms might be struggling with low milk supply and require supplementing their diet with galactagogic foods and/or formula.
Knowing all the facts about your available options is essential to make the best decision for your family, regardless of your choice. Seeking help from a professional such as a doula, lactation consultant, or your baby’s doctor is advisable when making your decision.
While there are many alternative options available for mothers struggling to breastfeed, doctors and pediatricians still promote breastfeeding as a the best primary source of nourishment for various reasons. However, other feeding methods are just as valid – in the end, it’s important to enjoy the beauty of raising your child into a strong, healthy and happy individual!