Baby formula gets a bad rap. The motto “Breast Is Best” was intended to encourage and support woefully under-supported breastfeeding mothers, but it’s also cast the choice to feed babies formula in a dubious light. The unintended consequence of campaigns to promote breastfeeding is the shame felt by those families with formula-fed babies, who for whatever reason — be it a medical necessity or social barriers or personal choice — give their babies formula in lieu of or as a supplement to breast milk. Is formula bad for babies? No. 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.”
Baby formula has become the shadowy villain of infant nutrition largely because of a few pernicious myths. The truth is that modern formula is far more wholesome than its contemporary reputation suggests. Here are some of the misconceptions that need to go away.
Baby Formula Myth #1: Formula Is Nutritionally Inferior to Breastmilk
There are differences between breast milk and formula, but they have little to do with a child getting the appropriate amount of nutrition. The protein, energy, vitamins and mineral content of formulas has been closely regulated since the 1980s. Any 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 are 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.”
Baby Formula Myth #2: Expensive Organic Formulas Are Closer to Breastmilk
Because all formula is tightly regulated by federal law, all formulas have to meet specific nutritional requirements. Formula makers, then, need to differentiate their products. This has given rise to organic, GMO-free formulas, and formulas supplemented with additives like supposedly brain-boosting DHA. All of these difference comes with a price, of course.
“For that reason, I tell people when picking a formula, routinely to pick the cheapest one,” Abrams explains. “Some of the things advertised in infant formula, I don’t think provide added value to families.”
However, Abrams notes that when parents do pick a formula that their baby enjoys, they should stick with it. Switching formulas frequently could cause issues for an infant who is already comfortable with the experience of a specific formula.
Baby Formula Myth #3: Formula Leads 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.
Baby Formula Myth #4: Formula-Fed Babies Don’t Bond as Much With Mothers
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 formula-fed babies 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 babies fed formula from the bottle. And there is simply no reason skin-to-skin contact can’t happen while bottle-feeding. Parents just need to get topless. You’re welcome.
Baby Formula Myth #5: Formula Is Never a Good Idea
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. Maybe she has to go back to work sooner than she’d like or finds breastfeeding painful. Some women are simply unable to breastfeed or find it too difficult due to surgeries, inverted nipples, pain or social issues that make breastfeeding or pumping a non-starter.
“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.”