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Breastfeeding vs. Formula: What Every New Parent Needs To Know

There are pros and cons to both. It just depends on what's right for your family.

Breastfeeding is held as the gold standard in providing nutrition to your newborn in the early stages of life. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends mothers breastfeed for at least six months, preferably the first 12 months. “At six months, infants’ nutritional needs increase and they require solid foods,” explains Larry Noble, MD, FAAP, a neonatologist and breastfeeding specialist in New York. “But we recommend that a mother continue to breastfeed for at least a year or more if possible.”

Why is a mother’s milk considered so much better than formula? And what about women who, for whatever reason, are unable to breastfeed? Is formula really that bad for your baby?

Mom’s Milk: Health Benefits

One of the major perks of breastfeeding is the antibodies found in a mother’s milk; they are passed on to the baby, reducing the risk of illness and boosting the immune system. Last year, a series of reports in the medical journal The Lancet found that increasing the number of babies who are breastfed before the age of six months would reduce medical costs in the U.S. by a whopping $2.45 billion annually.

“Breast milk contains multiple factors that prevent illness,” says Noble, who’s also an associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “It contains secretory IgA, an important antibody that protects the infant from specific infections, and different types of white blood cells that can find and destroy infections.” Most importantly, he adds, breast milk contains probiotics, normal microbiota that colonize the gut and prevent pathogenic bacteria from developing. “Healthy microbiota decreases childhood illnesses by decreasing inflammatory reactions in the body,” says Noble.

Goes Down Easy

Another reason to try the breast milk route: Most babies find it easier to digest than formula (read: less spit-up and midnight crying). Breast milk contains lactose, whey, casein protein, and fat — a combination experts say is the perfect nutritional mix. While formula has improved over the years and does its best to mimic natural milk, it is missing many of the vitamins and minerals mothers naturally pass on.

Breast milk could also make your child more tolerant of new foods in the future, since it introduces infants to the many flavors of their culture. Assuming your partner eats a wide variety of foods, those tastes will be passed on to the infant via the milk, preparing your youngster to more readily accept a variety of meal options once they’re ready for solids.

Formula Is Safe

Despite some aggressive ad campaigns to the contrary, it is perfectly safe to give your baby formula. While not as nutritionally rich as natural breast milk, “the FDA regulates infant formula as a food and ensures that they comply with established nutritional requirements,” says Noble. “All infant formulas are safe and contain nutrients necessary for infant growth.”

Another useful benefit of formula: Dads can partake, too. Fathers are able to prepare the bottle and feed their infant, allowing bonding time with baby and affording moms a break. (On the other hand, formula costs money while breast milk is free.)

Science Can’t Copy Nature

One day, infant formulas may find a way to perfectly mimic a mother’s milk. But right now, breast milk has a distinct advantage. “Breast milk contains live cells, such as white blood cells, stem cells and microbiota, as well as immunoglobulins,” says Noble. “There is evidence that if an infant has an infection, the mother’s breast milk increases its amount of white cells and immunoglobulins, and may even increase the specific antibody for the infant’s infection.” In that way, breast milk serves as medicine in addition to food, something formula does not do.

It’s Your Choice

Deciding whether to breast- or bottle-feed depends on personal factors, including whether your partner has trouble breastfeeding, whether she has any health complications that make it risky to breastfeed, and the structure of your personal lives and work schedules. “Many mothers have to return to work fairly quickly and are unsure if they will be able to continue breastfeeding once at work,” says Noble. “Other mothers are unsure if they will be successful at breastfeeding. I tell mothers that the hardest time to breastfeed is in the beginning. Once a routine is established it’s easier to continue.” So before hitting the bottle, give the breastfeeding option a thorough try, knowing that ultimately, “how long you continue is based on you and your partner’s breastfeeding goals and the realities of your busy lives.”