In the breastfeeding vs. formula debate, experts say breastfeeding is the optimal way to feed a baby. Breastfeeding has many health benefits for babies and mothers. Formula provides balanced nutrition for infants and is convenient for feedings but can be expensive and come with side effects.
When comparing formula feeding to breastfeeding, experts agree that breastfeeding is the preferred choice for infant feeding and nutrition. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants be breastfed exclusively for at least six months and then transitioned to breastfeeding with complementary foods for at least the first year.
The World Health Organization echoes the AAP’s sentiment. According to WHO, breast milk is clean, safe and helps support a healthy immune system. It’s also shown benefits for the future development of children and their ability to stay healthier as they age.
Research has shown breastfeeding has several advantages for both the infant and mother. Babies who are breastfed have a decreased risk of several childhood ailments and these benefits may last into adulthood. Breastfed children also perform better in intelligence tests, according to WHO.
A mother’s breast milk changes specifically for the baby’s needs as it grows, and a premature baby’s mother’s milk contains extra nutrition for at least the first few weeks. Even donor breast milk can provide many of the same benefits as a baby’s mother’s milk.
Being overweight or obese
Ear infections, specifically otitis media
Late-onset sepsis in babies born prematurely
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
Respiratory tract infection
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding their children. Breastfeeding lowers a mother’s risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, the AAP says breastfeeding may decrease the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and excessive menstrual blood loss. Be sure to check with your medical provider for more health information on breastfeeding.
While breastfeeding is the recommended way to feed babies, breastfeeding challenges such as a baby’s health or a mother’s medical condition may make it difficult or impossible to breastfeed. Breastfeeding may also cause uncomfortable issues such as fungal infections and soreness of the nipples.
Premature babies may have a difficult time breastfeeding because being underdeveloped makes it harder for them to coordinate suck, swallow and breathe actions. They may also need more nutrients that those occurring naturally in breast milk. In these cases, your preemie’s doctor may recommend supplementing breast milk with preemie formula or exclusive formula feeding.
“A small number of mothers are not able to breastfeed. This can be hard to accept, but it does not make you a bad mom. Infant formula is still a healthy choice, and your baby will get all the necessary nutrients.”
Mothers taking certain medications shouldn’t breastfeed. For example, breastfeeding is contraindicated for mothers going through chemotherapy. Make sure to tell your doctor if you are on medication and plan to breastfeed to make sure it’s safe to do so. The National Library of Medicine provides a drug database for breastfeeding safety.
Other challenges include low milk supply, engorged breasts, plugged milk ducts, feelings of sadness or depression and dealing with the judgement of others who may not support breastfeeding. Seek help from your medical provider or check out resources from the Office on Women’s Health for common problems and solutions.