The phrase “Breast is Best” has been inked indelibly onto the flabby body of work devoted to dispensing parental advice — and not only because it’s true. Part of the reason the point is so frequently reiterated is that so little has been done in America to support breastfeeding mothers. The emphasis is political in a sense. However, the unintended consequence of pushing breast milk is the deep shame felt by those families who, for whatever reason — be it a medical necessity or social barriers — turn to formula feeding.
“No family should ever feel guilty or ashamed for formula feeding,” Dr. Steven Abrams, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition explains. “That serves no purpose is not consistent with what we know about feeding babies.”
Formula has become the dark villain of infancy largely due to pernicious myths. The truth is that formula is far more benign than it’s contemporary reputation suggests. Here are the misconceptions that need to go away.
Baby Formula Myth #1: Formula Feed 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 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”
I fact, there are plenty of times for mother 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. How fun is that?
Baby Formula Myth #2: Formula is Nutritionally Inferior to Breastmilk
There are differences between breastmilk and formula, however, those 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.”
However, there is a concern about the baby receiving the immune support that breast milk provides. And this is one of the main reasons pediatricians say that breast milk is best for babies.
That said, the increased risk of communicable diseases, allergies or other medical conditions are small enough that, formula isn’t 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 #3: 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 come 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 experience of a specific formula.
Baby Formula Myth #4: Formula Leads to Obesity
This myth is a tricky one. There is some evidence linking formula to 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 #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. 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 believe is best for the baby,” Abrams says. “It’s not even close to the end of the world.”