Some families know right from the start what they’ll feed their babies — breast milk or formula — while others struggle. Most child health organizations advocate breastfeeding, and “Breast is best” is a commonly used phrase. There’s no doubt, breastfeeding is a wonderful way to nourish a newborn — breast milk provides numerous benefits. Mayo Clinic experts agree.
However, medical providers also realize that not all women are the same, and people’s life situations are different. Depending on your circumstances, certain factors may lead you to choose infant formula instead of breast milk. Or you may opt for a combination of both breast milk and formula. Some women simply aren’t able to breastfeed.
If you’re worried that you’re not being a good mother or putting the needs of your child first if you don’t breastfeed, don’t. Such negative thinking isn’t good for you or for your baby. Feeding, regardless of how it’s delivered — breast milk or formula, breast or bottle — promotes intimacy. Know that both options will provide your child the nutrition he or she needs to grow and thrive.
Questions to ask
If you haven’t had your baby yet and you’re debating between breast milk and formula, you might consider these questions:
- What does your medical provider suggest? Your medical provider will likely be very supportive of breastfeeding unless you have specific health issues — such as a certain disease or disease treatment — that make formula feeding a better choice.
- Do you understand both methods? Many women have misconceptions about breastfeeding. Learn as much as you can about feeding your baby. Seek out expert advice if needed.
- Do you plan to return to work? If so, how will that impact breastfeeding? Does your place of work have accommodations available where you can use a breast pump, if that’s your plan?
- How does your partner feel about the decision? The decision is ultimately yours, but it’s a good idea to take your partner’s feelings into consideration.
- How have other mothers you trust and respect made their decisions? If they had it to do over again, would they make the same choices?
Breastfeeding is highly encouraged by experts because it has many known health benefits for babies and moms. The longer you breastfeed, the greater the chances that your baby will experience these benefits, and the more likely they are to last.
Benefits for babies
Breast milk provides babies with:
- Ideal nutrition. Breast milk has just the right nutrients, in just the right amounts, to nourish your baby completely. It contains the fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that a baby needs for growth, digestion and brain development. Breast milk is also individualized; the composition of your breast milk changes as your baby grows.
- Protection against disease. Breast milk provides antibodies that help your baby’s immune system fight off common childhood illnesses. Breast-fed babies may have fewer colds, ear infections and urinary tract infections than do babies who aren’t breast-fed. Breast-fed babies may also have fewer problems with asthma, food allergies and skin conditions, such as eczema. Studies suggest that adults who were breast-fed as infants may have a lowered risk of heart attack and stroke and may be less likely to develop diabetes.
- Protection against obesity. Research indicates that babies who are breast-fed are less likely to experience obesity as adults. Formula-fed infants generally have a higher calorie intake than do babies fed breast milk. And breast milk itself appears to have components that help control hunger and energy balance.
- Easy digestion. Breast milk is easier for babies to digest than formula or cow’s milk. Because breast milk doesn’t remain in the stomach as long as formula does, breast-fed babies spit up less. They have less gas and less constipation. They also have less diarrhea, as breast milk appears to kill some diarrhea causing germs and helps a baby’s digestive system grow and function.
Benefits for moms
For nursing mothers, the benefits include:
- Faster recovery from childbirth. The baby’s suckling triggers your body to release oxytocin, a hormone that causes the uterus to contract. This means that the uterus returns to its pre-pregnancy size more quickly after delivery.
- Suppressed ovulation. Breastfeeding delays the return of ovulation and, therefore, menstruation, which may help extend the time between pregnancies. However, breastfeeding is not a guarantee against pregnancy. You can still become pregnant while breastfeeding.
- Possible long-term health benefits. Breastfeeding may reduce your risk of getting breast cancer before menopause. Breastfeeding also appears to provide some protection from uterine and ovarian cancers.
- Convenience. Many mothers find breastfeeding to be more convenient than bottle-feeding. It can be done anywhere, at any time, whenever your baby shows signs of hunger. Plus, no equipment is necessary.
- Breast milk is always available — and at the perfect temperature. Because you don’t need to prepare a bottle and you can nurse lying down, nighttime feedings may be easier.
- Cost savings. Breastfeeding can save money because you don’t need to buy formula, and you may not need bottles.
Admittedly, breastfeeding can also present some challenges and inconveniences. Drawbacks to breastfeeding for nursing moms include:
- Exclusive feeding duties. At first, newborns nurse every two to three hours, day and night. That can be tiring for you, and your partner may feel left out. But you can also express milk with a breast pump, if desired, which can let others take over some feedings.
- Certain dietary restrictions. If you’re breastfeeding, the general rule is to avoid drinking alcohol before nursing. The alcohol level in breast milk is basically the same as in your bloodstream. One standard drink — such as 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer — takes about two to three hours to leave the bloodstream (and therefore breast milk). If you do drink alcohol, wait at least a couple of hours before breastfeeding. “Pumping and dumping” — pumping after drinking alcohol and discarding the breast milk — doesn’t affect the amount of alcohol in breast milk. Blood alcohol levels will only go down with time.
- Sore nipples. Some women may experience sore nipples and, at times, breast infections. These may be avoided with the right positioning and technique. A lactation consultant or your medical provider can advise you on proper positioning.
- Other physical side effects. When your lactating, your body’s hormones may keep your vagina relatively dry. Using a water-based lubricating jelly can help treat this problem. It may also take time for your menstrual cycle to once again establish a regular pattern.
Some parents prefer to feed their infants formula rather than breast milk. This is a personal choice, and there are many reasons why new parents opt for formula. In a few cases, breastfeeding just isn’t possible.
If you choose not to or you aren’t able to breastfeed, be assured that your baby’s nutritional needs can be met with the use of infant formula. And your baby will still be happily bonded to you as a parent.
Pros and cons
Parents who formula feed usually feel the main advantages are:
- Shared feeding duties. Using a bottle with formula allows more than one person to feed the baby. For that reason, some nursing mothers feel they have more freedom when they’re bottle- feeding. Both parents may like bottle-feeding because it allows them to share more easily in the feeding responsibilities.
- Convenience. Some parents feel formula is more portable, especially on outings and in public places. They don’t have to find an out-of-the-way location to breastfeed.
Some of the challenges of formula feeding include:
- Time-consuming preparation. Bottles must be prepared for each feeding. You need a steady supply of formula. Bottles and nipples need to be washed. If you go out, you may need to take formula with you.
- Cost. Formula is costly, which may be a concern for some parents.
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