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Parenting

Benefits of breast milk vs. infant formula— A food scientist mom weighs in on the feeding debate

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Parenting involves a lot of decision-making; one of them being what to feed your baby. During the first year as a parent, there are countless occasions for a mom to ponder why and when she should choose breast milk over formula or vice versa. Below is a detailed analysis, based on the make-up of the two ‘milks’. We hope this will help you make the big decision to choose breast milk or baby formula for your newborn’s nutrition. The truth is you don’t have to choose just one. Combo feeding is a great way to win on the breast milk vs infant formula debate— you get to do both, at the level you choose.

How to choose formula vs breast milk

Breast milk is the gold standard and the blueprint for infant formula. Both breast milk and formula are macro nutritionally similar. This means, as a breastmilk substitute, both provide similar amounts of the most needed elements for the child – energy, carbs, fat, protein and hydration. Most formulas today also carry DHA and ARA at quantities similar to breast milk, that are essential for visual and mental development.

Infant formulas are designed to support normal growth and development equivalent to breast milk and are a safe and nutritionally sound alternative when breastfeeding is not an option.

The allure of ‘Liquid Gold’

Just as no breast milk is created equal, no baby formula is created equal. Breast milk composition and benefits are largely dependent on the mother’s health, diet, and lifestyle choices. Similarly, each formula brand is different because of the ingredients used to fine tune the formulation.

Breast milk benefits

  • Antibodies – It is hard to match this personalized army that the breastfeeding mom creates and passes on to protect the infant from environmental pathogens and any infections she has already been through.
  • Probiotics – The natural, living, active gut bacteria are passed on through breast milk and help an infant create a healthy digestive tract, softer stools, immunity, and even lessen allergies.
  • Prebiotics – Human milk oligosaccharides are essentially carbs that help feed probiotics and maintain a healthy gut.
  • Growth factors and hormones – Again, personalized and supportive of infant’s growth and development. 
  • Flavors – The sweetness can be matched, but breast milk offers a touch of flavor from the other foods eaten by the mom throughout the day; formula has yet to add the spice and kick!

Benefits of baby formula

Formula delivers micronutrients, that are the next critical tier of nutrients at levels needed to support normal growth and development, and avoid deficiency. This is the reason for infant formulas to hit “complete nutrition” or be considered a “sole source of nutrition.” 

  • Iron – Formulas with added iron contain more iron than breast milk to prevent anemia and continues to supply sufficient iron even if the infant is not introduced to iron-rich foods at six months. The baby’s innate iron stores are spent by six months and breast milk provides very little iron.
  • Vitamin B12 – Many vegetarian and vegan diets lack this essential vitamin, hence it’s often a deficiency in the breast milk of such moms.

Formula may be a better option for babies when:

  1. The mom is deficient in certain nutrients. For instance: essential fatty acids (omega-3s) and calcium.
  2. The mom’s diet is unhealthy or consumes foods baby is allergic to. For instance: contains a lot of high fructose corn syrup-based foods or diary.
  3. The infant cannot digest lactose or has galactosemia. 
  4. The mom is undergoing medical treatments and taking strong medications.

Best foods for improving breast milk

Cow’s milk gleans the benefits based on what the farm animal eats. Human milk is no different; it can be nutritionally superior when the mother is on a healthy and conscious diet. Here is a list of healthy foods for breastfeeding moms:

  • Avocado
  • Leafy greens
  • Mushrooms
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Lean beef
  • Fennel

Choosing between breast milk and baby formula

Choosing between breast milk and formula is a personal choice, one that each family can make for themselves. Everyone’s feeding journeys are different, therefore we can not say any is right or wrong. Both choices are healthy choices for healthy newborns. Talk to your pediatrician for help with this, and any other decision that comes to your baby’s health.

The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant's pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.
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The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant’s pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.

Meet the Author

Viji Ganesh

Viji Ganesh is a food scientist with experience in infant nutrition. She holds a Masters in Food Science and a Bachelors in Biotechnology. As a mom of two girls, Viji truly believes that 'ingredients matter' and that starts with the child's first nutrition.

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