11 Feb Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding: making an informed decision
Choosing to breastfeed or bottle-feed your baby may be the first and biggest decision you’ll ever make as a new parent. First, you need to know that there’s no right or wrong choice. Both options will provide your baby with the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. But, understanding and weighing the pros and cons of each of the options will help you to make an informed decision and choose what is best for you and your baby.
Why choose breastfeeding?
Babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life and continue to be breastfed along with complementary foods for up to two years or beyond in order to achieve optimal growth and development. (1)
Human milk not only contains the right amount of nutrients your baby needs to grow and thrive, but also has hundreds to thousands of bioactive components and antibodies that protect your baby against infection and inflammation. Breastmilk also has growth factors, and prebiotics such as oligosaccharides which help to colonize the baby’s gut flora with healthy bacteria and protect them against bacteria that can cause some intestinal infections like diarrhoea. (2)
What is more amazing is that human milk, unlike infant formula, is a dynamic fluid since its composition changes and varies within feedings, over lactation, and even between mums too! (2)
Science has also backed all the numerous health benefits of breastfeeding, and several studies have estimated that almost 1 million child deaths could be avoided each year thanks to this practice.
Breastfeeding helps prevent a number of conditions such as (3):
- allergies and infections, like ear and respiratory tract infections
- stomach problems – babies are less likely to have diarrhoea and vomiting
- sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
- it may help improve your baby’s cognitive development
Likewise, research has confirmed that adolescents and adults who were breastfed are less likely to be overweight or obese, suffer from type 2 diabetes, and asthma.(3)
But the benefits of breastfeeding are not only for babies. Breastfeeding also seems to protect mums in the years to come, lowering the risks of cardiovascular disease, postpartum depression and protecting them against breast and ovarian cancer. Moreover, this practice allows her to bond emotionally with her baby. And last but not least, breast milk is always available, and it’s free, meaning that it also has economic and environmental benefits for communities! (3)
Despite all the mentioned benefits, breastfeeding also presents many challenges and may not be suitable or possible for all new mums. Women can experience latching problems, nipple pain, and low breastmilk supply. Nursing twins or multiples can be very demanding as well and some might also not feel comfortable breastfeeding in public or find it impractical when going out or going back to work.
Other special situations like breast infections caused by untreated mastitis (inflammation of the breast) or women who face medical conditions, such as HIV or AIDS, or other medical treatments, may make breastfeeding inadvisable (4). Maternal responsibilities, emotional stress or a short maternity leave also present a real challenge nowadays without the support of our tribe or community in our modern day lifestyle. (5, 6)
Why choose formula feeding?
Let’s look at some of the pro’s and con’s of formula feeding.
For mums who can’t breastfeed or decide not to for whatever reason, infant formula is a healthy and nutritious alternative to breastmilk, and women should not feel guilty for turning to formula feeds.
Specialised formula can be helpful in some cases for example, when babies have food allergies or sensitivities, where it may help ease their discomfort. Infant formula also gives the mum some freedom and flexibility.
Formula feeding challenges:
In any case, despite all the efforts of companies to mimic human milk, formula doesn’t provide the unique properties that can only be found in breast milk, such as antibodies. It can also be time-consuming because you need to mix and prepare it to make sure it’s in the right temperature. Bottles and nipples also need to be washed and sanitized on a daily basis to protect your baby’s health and prevent them getting sick. It’s more likely that you waste milk because you need to throw away any leftover formula (bacterial growth may occur if you save milk for later) which can also raise the cost of using formula feeding. (7)
On the other hand, some babies can experience digestive issues like constipation and gas from the components in the formula and/or from using a different nipple or bottle. (8)
If you decide to go for formula feeding, you’ll also need more planning to make sure that your baby will have all the feeds they need.
Is it a black or white decision? Or is it possible to have a middle ground?
When it comes to nurturing your baby, it’s not always a question of only breastfeeding or only formula feeding. Yes, as I explained above, exclusive breastfeeding is always the first recommendation to feed your newborn, however, many women find that partial breastfeeding adapts to her routine and also offers more comfort. It may also be necessary if her baby’s growth is faltering.
Partial or mixed feeding which is combining breastfeeding and bottle feeding at the same time, can disrupt and interfere with breastfeeding resulting in low milk supply. But, with the right counselling, mums are able to successfully combine both breastfeeding alongside formula feeding. You just need to remember to breastfeed as much as you can every day! (9)
Making a Choice
Deciding how you will feed your baby is a personal choice, and it will be based mostly on your beliefs, lifestyle, or specific situations.
While you’re weighing the pro’s and con’s of each of the available options, research and be as informed as possible about the issues and benefits for each. Consult a lactation consultant or a breastfeeding counsellor to help guide you to make the best-informed choice for your situation.
Don’t forget that there are several options to choose from and you should go for what works for you, your family and lifestyle. Whether your baby is fed breastmilk or formula, the most important thing is that your baby is growing and thriving, and that you as a mum are looking after yourself and what’s best for you too. That’s what really matters.