In many parenting circles in the US, the adage “Breast is Best” is an unspoken assumption, coupled with a hazy idea of what those benefits are. In the so-called “Mommy Wars” (fueled mostly by those with industry interests), breastfeeding mothers are pitted against formula feeding mothers, sometimes even showcasing the battle in top-Brand formula commercials.
The slogan is “Fed is Best” brings the debate back to middle ground, contending that no matter the type of milk or the delivery system, babies just need to be fed — without judgement. And who wouldn’t agree with that? Obviously, babies need optimal nutrition to grow and thrive, and it’s a parent’s job to make sure that nutrition is available.
But what’s really on the breastfeeding benefits list? Does the science back it up? What if you have to formula feed, supplementing occasionally or full-time? And can breastfeeding help with the health disparities of mothers and babies in the US?
Fortunately for today’s parents, research is available on all aspects of this debate, so they can decide what’s best for their babies’ overall health and well-being.
Mammals vs. Modern Life
Picturing a mammal feeding her baby, whether it’s a cat, a chimpanzee, or a human, brings to mind a tiny being drinking milk from its mother. This primal link to Nature and evolution is still there, despite our higher functioning brains and ultra-modern, sanitized lifestyle. When a baby is first born, this primal link exists and is the strongest it will ever be in that child’s lifetime, so the biological imperative to breastfeed is in place, expecting to be fulfilled. We tend to override many of these primal impulses, believing we are above them, but in this case, it may not be the smartest idea.
Here are some of the benefits for both mothers and babies:
Benefits for Baby
- Convenience: Perfectly balanced, ready to eat food, adapts to a child’s health & growth needs.
- Vital Signs: Skin-to-skin contact helps regulate body temperature, heart rate, and respiration.
- Immune System: Boosts the immune system and may transfer lifelong immunity.
- Nervous System: Regulates nervous system and lowers stress.
- Microbiome: Boosts good gut bacteria while reducing antibiotic resistant bacteria in the infant’s gut. In fact, premature babies in the NICU who are fed breastmilk are only half as likely to get necrotizing enterocolitis, one of the most dangerous complications in preemies.
- Childhood Health: Lowers risk of allergies & asthma, ear infections, eczema, diarrhea, respiratory illnesses, leading to fewer hospitalizations & trips to the doctor.
- Bonding: physical closeness, coupled with being skin-to-skin and close eye contact, helps babies to feel secure and attached. Their brains then release oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which strengthens their bond with their mother, creating a positive feedback loop.
- IQ: Linked to higher IQ in some studies, best for premature infants’ brain development.
- Prevent infant death: Reduces risk of SIDS
- Long-term Health: lowered risk for obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Benefits for Mom
- Convenience: No mixing, heating, cleaning, sterilizing bottles or nipples. Always the right temperature, and correct nutritional balance.
- Economic: No need to buy formula, bottles or nipples – instead, invest in a healthy diet.
- Emotional: Physical closeness causes the brain to release oxytocin, which helps with relaxation, attachment & connection. Lowered risk for Postpartum Depression.
- Weight: Burns calories faster, easier to lose pregnancy weight.
- Reproductive: Helps the uterus contract down to pre-pregnancy size through oxytocin release. Also, most women experience amenorrhea, or lack of a period, while breastfeeding, which can help them to avoid pregnancy.
- Long-term Health: lowers risk for breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke, and diabetes.
Other Beneficial Traits
Breastmilk has many other health-promoting properties, besides the nutritional benefits. Overall, breastmilk is beneficial for many skin conditions, such as sore nipples, insect bites, eczema, sunburn, other types of rashes, and acne. It can also help with mild eye discharge or ear infections. Later, as baby begins teething, it can be frozen and used as a popsicle for them to gnaw on. One study has even found that sugars in breastmilk are a new class of antibacterial agents. It’s fascinating to note that babies may be exposed to human milk sugars in utero. Previously, they had been found in maternal urine and blood as early as 1st trimester.
What if I Can’t Breastfeed?
While breastmilk is the optimal food human babies are adapted to, there is a subset of women who cannot breastfeed due to various physiological supply issues. Some women have a lack of adequate milk-producing tissue. Others suffer from the effects of medications, such as Pitocin, used during delivery. Still others’ milk supply is significantly impacted from having had a surgical birth.
Unfortunately, some mothers are not aware of the benefits of breastmilk and don’t even try to breastfeed. They may lack support from family, friends, their community, or their cultural heritage or traditions. Others may understand the long list of benefits, but the support from hospital staff, family & friends to push through and make breastfeeding work just doesn’t exist. Lastly, there are some women who choose not to breastfeed for their own personal reasons, which may be of physical and/or psychological in nature.
Don’t Forget Donor Milk
For mothers who are not able to breastfeed, there are plenty of alternate options. The top recommendation from lactation experts is to find donor breastmilk from a trusted source. (Even adoptive parents now sometimes choose donor milk to feed their new babies.) Most cities have donor milk banks which screen, collect, and store milk for hospital or individual use. Families can also seek out more loosely organized, community-based groups such as Eats on Feets or Human Milk 4 Human Babies, connecting with like-minded mothers who share their extra pumped milk for other members’ babies.
An Array of Formula Choices
If donor milk is not a comfortable choice, families most often choose to purchase formula for their infants instead. When selecting a formula, it’s best to check the ingredients and find brands that are non-GMO, organic, and preferably without corn syrup solids as the main ingredient. If a child cannot tolerate the alternative proteins, which are generally made from cow’s milk or soy beans, parents can research brands that already have the proteins broken down part-way, or those brands that use goat’s milk protein instead.
It is interesting to note that the protein in goat’s milk is smaller and much more easily digested than cow’s milk, so this can be a good option. In addition to the main protein source, it is also important to check which supplements have been added, such as iron, DHA, ARA, prebiotics, and/or probiotics, and the pros and cons of each one.
Other Impacts to Consider
Two other important aspect of choosing formula is the type of water being used to mix the powder into, and the types of bottles and nipples being used to feed the baby. Water choices are bottled, tap, or filtered, but filtered water is usually best, depending on a town’s water treatment system. There is no need to incur the cost of bottled water unless local water quality is poor. Deciding on which type of bottles and nipples are used to feed the baby is also important, due to the potential health hazards present in plastics. For instance BPA, which is used to make plastics softer, has been linked to cancer.
Environmentally, the packaging from the formula powder may have aluminum or other toxins in it, leaching into the powder itself. All that packaging then needs to go somewhere, and finds its way from our trash cans to large landfills or into the ocean, creating yet another negative impact on our planet.
Issues with Baby
A whole different set of issues has to do with babies who physically are not able to breastfeed. Some infants are too small, perhaps due to prematurity, and aren’t yet strong enough to suck efficiently. This also happens with infants who have low muscle tone. Most commonly, there are babies who have a tongue-tie or other tethered oral tissue, which means that areas of the cheeks, jaw, and/or tongue are too tight to be able to pull a sufficient amount of milk from the breast. These issues can be diagnosed by a knowledgeable lactation consultant, and then revised by a pediatric dentist.
Be sure to always consult with an experienced lactation consultant (IBCLC or LC) with any issue that may arise if successfully breastfeeding is your goal.
Solving Health Disparities
With the overwhelming amount of science backing the practice of breastfeeding, it’s no wonder that the phrase “Breast is Best” became common knowledge. As an added benefit, and of particular interest at Focus for Health, is the fact that a whole host of health disparities across all socioeconomic groups could be reduced if breastfeeding were better promoted and supported in our society.
However, for any mother to be able to succeed, they need the support of their families first and foremost. Then, they require a wide net of societal support in the form of doctors, nurses, and community health workers to help them overcome the obstacles in their path. Once these provisions are put in place, we will begin to see a surge in the overall health of our mothers and babies, and as these levels rise, the health of the Nation will benefit.