5 Truths About Baby Formula And Formula-Fed Babies

Yes, breast is best, but that does not mean formula is bad. Many parents should stop giving formula feeders the side eye.

Originally Published: 
A dad bottle feeding his infant.
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Parents using newborn formula and baby formula aren’t doing anything wrong. And formula-fed babies can develop just as well as their breastfed peers. In fact, baby formula can be crucial due to medical necessity and social barriers. Because while breastfeeding is great for babies, it’s not always possible, and almost never easy.

Is formula bad for babies? Absolutely not. In the words of Dr. Steven Abrams, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, “No family should ever feel guilty or ashamed for formula feeding. That serves no purpose and is not consistent with what we know about feeding babies.”

Formula-Fed Babies Don’t Struggle to Bond

While it’s true that breastfed babies spend a great deal of time experiencing skin-to-skin contact with their mothers, that does not mean that children fed on newborn formula are somehow deficient in parental bonding. The idea originally surfaced from old studies suggesting long-term damage to the bonding relationship if a child was not held or breastfed within the first few hours of life.

“I don’t believe the current thinking supports that,” Abrams says. “This is a kind of mythology that needs to go away. I don’t think anyone would suggest that there’s scientific evidence that babies fed at the breast do not bond with mothers or fathers appropriately.”

In fact, there are plenty of times for mothers and fathers to bond with formula-fed babies. (Not to mention one of the benefits of formula being that Dads can bond with baby during feedings) There is simply no reason skin-to-skin contact can’t happen while bottle-feeding. Parents just need to get topless. You’re welcome.

Formula-Fed Babies Aren’t Nutritionally Deficient

There are differences between breast milk and baby formula, but they have little to do with a child getting the appropriate amount of nutrition. The protein, energy, vitamins, and mineral content of baby formula has been closely regulated since the 1980s. Any baby formula sold is required to meet the same nutritional requirements to meet the needs of growing babies.

“Modern formulas are designed to ensure adequate growth,” Abrams explains. “There isn’t a concern about that.” Breast milk does provide immune support that can’t be replicated with baby formula, which is why pediatricians say that breast milk is best for babies. But that doesn’t mean that formula is a bad choice.

The increased risk of communicable diseases, allergies, or other medical conditions is small enough that baby formula is far from dangerous. “We live here in the United States where many of the conditions associated with immune problems are less common,” Abrams says. “Not breastfeeding is not ideal, but doesn’t fall anywhere near the parenting problem that not immunizing would be.”

It Doesn’t Always Lead to Obesity

This myth is a tricky one. There is some evidence linking formula to the risk of obesity in children, but it’s not due to anything that’s in the formula. Rather, it’s a parenting issue. It turns out that parents who formula feed might be overfeeding.

“Some of this can be limited in effect in being cautious about the overfeeding of babies,” Abrams says. “It’s not a given that a formula-fed baby will be obese.” Is there a concern? Sure, But much of that concern can be mitigated by careful feeding practices on the part of a parent and the watchful eye of a pediatrician.

Sometimes Formula Is a Necessity

There are times when formula feeding is important. Sometimes a mother is simply unable to produce enough breast milk for an infant. Other times, there could be health issues around infectious diseases like HIV. In a country with no paid parental leave, many women have to go back to work sooner than they’d like. Many women find it painful. Still, others find it too difficult due to surgeries, inverted nipples, pain, or social issues that make breastfeeding or pumping a non-starter. The benefits of breast milk don’t always outweigh the barriers.

“Mothers should not be hesitant to formula-feed if that’s what their caregiver or pediatrician believes is best for the baby,” Abrams says. “It’s not even close to the end of the world.”

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