Baby Formula or Breastmilk? Comparison, Differences, Pros & Cons
When choosing how to feed your baby, there are many factors at play. For some, breastmilk works well. For others, baby formula is the best route. And for many, a combination of both breastmilk and formula become part of the family routine. Whether you are still pregnant, in early motherhood, or you are coming up on a new transition, deciding how to feed your baby is not a one-size-fits-all answer. The ways to be a good mom are endless, and your feeding choices are just a piece in that story. We are here to help you understand the pros and cons of both breastmilk and baby formula and support your decisions to find what is best for you.
The History of Formula for Babies
Baby’s Formula was created back in 1865 by chemist Justus von Liebig. He used cows milk, wheat and malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate to create a formula for babies who did not have access to breastmilk. As you can imagine, it continued to change and improve over the years. In 1929 soy-based formula was introduce for babies who could not tolerate dairy. As it became marketed, it was primarily marketed directly to providers and pediatricians. In 1980, quality control entered with the FDA infant Formula Act of 1980, guaranteeing a quality level in all formula on the market. In 1988, formula marketing switch to directly to the parents, the consumer.
Throughout these seasons and changes, there have been different stories around formula. Some are praising the ability to have a needed substitution. Other stories are pushing back against anything that is not directly nursing. These stories can still be seen in “mommy wars” and places where strong opinion run rampant. This can be hard on new moms making a decision; I know it was hard on me. However, we know that what is best is what is able to support you, your baby, and your family. Sometimes that means tuning out the voices that are loud, but are not part of your family story.
What is Baby’s Formula Made Of?
As mentioned above, the FDA Infant Formula Act of 1980 is in place to ensure quality control. This includes the nutrients that need to be present in formula for baby, enables recalls, requires inspections, and maintains that babies receive what they need when formula-fed. Formula is made to mimic the properties of breastmilk. This means that, per the FDA, formula must include protein (this could be milk or soy), fat and fatty acids, carbohydrates, prebiotics, lutein, vitamin E, vitamin D, vitamin A, and minerals including iron, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
One benefit of baby formula is the ability to know the make-up and being able to control for any specific needs for baby. For example, hydrolyzed baby formula is created “predigested” which may be helpful for certain baby needs. You may need a formula that is soy-based for a dairy allergy. Some baby formulas can contain higher caloric intake for babies that are premature or struggling with weight gain.
The Benefits of Breastmilk for Babies
For families that have breastmilk as a viable and safe option, there are benefits to consider. Because the milk comes directly from mom, the nutrient make up is more specialized and provides antibodies for baby. This can create a decreased rate of infections, allergies, and other reactions. While baby formula mimics the make up of mom’s breastmilk, it can never fully provide the unique properties that can be passed down from mom to baby. It has even been found that mom’s milk interacts with the baby’s saliva to create the components needed in breastmilk. This is nothing short of amazing.
Feeding Options: Pros and Cons
Feeding your baby is a part of your motherhood story, but it is not the only thing to consider. There are a number of things to consider when deciding how to feed your baby. Mom’s mental health is one of the most important factors to consider. You also want to consider if/when you will be returning to work and how feeding will continue through that transition. For some families, it is a priority to have the partner involved with feedings, which may impact the route you choose. Each of the options below are good options and no one way makes a “better” mom. It is also important to note that your way of feeding will likely change as the baby grows and your family needs and circumstances change.
Formula feeding means primarily using formula as the food for your baby. This may be the route if your milk does not come in for any reason, if there are breastfeeding complications, or if you choose not to breastfeed for any reason. The advantages of formula feeding are that you can share the feeding duty more with your partner, family, caretakers, etc. You have the options of powdered formula, concentrated formula, and ready-to-feed. Brands such as Similac and Infamil have been on the market for years and have undergone continued testing. They, along with other baby formula brands, offer a variety of formulas to meet your baby’s needs.
-Bottle feeding allows you to track baby’s intake
-Formulas for specific needs
-Others can help with feedings
-Not specific to your baby
Breastfeeding by Nursing
Breastfeeding by nursing is what we think of when we picture a baby eating from the mother. This brings the benefits of breastmilk to the baby. Breastfeeding can often require support from an IBCLC or other professional in order to get a good latch, positioning, and routine for feeding. The advantages include the changing milk to meet baby’s needs, the availability of having “milk on demand,” and less things to clean without bottles and other parts.
-Milk changes with baby’s needs
-Not easy to track baby’s intake
-Can prolong hormonal changes in mom
-Limits who can help with feedings
Breastfeeding by Pumping
For some families, direct nursing is not an option. Certain conditions in the baby or the mom can lead to pumping breastmilk and bottle-feeding. Pumping breastmilk allows for a baby to still receive the benefits of breastmilk, but with a different mode for mom and baby.
-Provides the benefits of breastmilk to the baby
-Allows for others to help with feedings
-Helpful when returning to work or other times you are away
–Breastmilk may be less specific to your baby
-Extra time for pumping and then feeding
-Extra cleaning and sanitizing parts
Formula and Breastmilk Combination Feeding
You do not have to choose one method and be all or nothing. Many families combine the benefits of breastmilk and formula feeding. For some this is helpful with allowing a partner to do some of the feeds. For moms returning to work, they may use formula at daycare and breastmilk at home. Babies struggling to gain weight may have bottles with formula added to breastmilk to increase calories. You get to choose the combination that works best for your family needs.
What I Wish Someone Had Told Me as a New Mom About Breastmilk and Formula
As a brand new mom, I found myself surrounded by the “breast is best” phrase. I held myself to a standard and by doing so, suffered from nipple damage and mental health difficulties. I found myself feeling ashamed when things did not go as I thought they should. I held breastfeeding as a golden standard above so many other things that I needed and my baby needed. I wish, as a new mom, someone had told me that “best” is dependent on each family. It looks different and includes so many different factors. If I had the permission to explore all of my options, I would have been able to focus on connecting with my baby and myself in the ways that worked best for us.
If you are an expecting mom or a new mom, your story does not have to look like anyone else’s.
Have important conversations with your partner and support team.
Do what works best for you and your baby without apology.