Sorry, but that’s a trick question. You’ve just been duped. The correct answer lies somewhere between “formula is evil” and “breast is best.” Formula is not the equivalent of feeding your baby rat poison, but it’s not perfect either. Breastfeeding can provide a great many health benefits, proven by science, but studies also show that many of these benefits may be overblown.
When you’re trying to make this big decision between baby formula and breast milk, a decision that parenting experts and pediatricians claim will affect your baby for the rest of his life (no pressure!), it helps to know that there is only one right decision for you. Do your homework, read the research, check baby formula ingredient labels and make a choice that works best for you and your family.
What’s missing in the “breast is best” campaign is more information on baby formula. Most moms shy away from formula feeding or even supplementing because they just don’t know enough about it. Hospitals are showing their bias by offering less free baby formula to new moms than ever before. So where are you going to get this balanced information about formula feeding?
If you’re a mom who has questions and needs answers to make an informed decision, this article is for you. Here’s what no one is telling you — the good, the bad and the in between about baby formula.
1. It may help your baby sleep
This is a classic baby formula old wives’ tale that many moms still swear by: Supplement your breast milk with some baby formula (or switch altogether) and that nugget might just sleep through the night, finally. Researchers say infant irritability has been linked to breastfeeding. When scientists from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge observed 300 3-month-old babies, they discovered that formula-fed babies cried less and were easier to put to sleep.
2. It could boost gut health
One of the biggest benefits of breastfeeding is how it can influence a baby’s inner ecology, aka a baby’s gut health, from birth. Having diverse gut bacteria can provide innumerable health benefits including stronger immunity and a reduced risk of disease. What does this have to do with baby formula, you ask? Scientists are always looking for a way to make formula better. Researchers found that this breast-milk-gut-bacteria benefit, which is absolutely essential for a healthy baby, could be used as a prototype to design better baby formula — possibly working as a pre- and probiotic to improve gut health.
3. It may contain high fructose corn syrup
Before you pluck that can of formula off the shelf, take a moment to read the label. Most moms are surprised to discover that many conventional baby formulas contain high levels of high fructose corn syrup. Dr. Carolyn Dean, M.D., N.D., medical advisory board member for the Nutritional Magnesium Association, says, “Many commercial baby formulas use high fructose corn syrup, instilling a sweet tooth in babies before they cut their first teeth.” For more information, consult Processed-Free America’s helpful guide to choosing the safest baby formula.
4. It can be hard to digest
Specialty formulas, like soy formulas recommended for babies allergic to cow’s milk, can be harder on a baby’s digestive system than many parents realize. “Soy formula is actually very difficult to digest and full of plant estrogens that may be unsafe for infants, especially males,” explains Dr. Dean. If your baby seems fussy and constipated, consider switching to a soy-free brand or ask your doctor for hypoallergenic formula recommendations.
5. It can sit on the teeth
Just like you brush your teeth after a hearty dinner, formula-feeding parents need to remember to wipe down a baby’s mouth after a big meal, says Dr. Greg Cumberford. Dr. Cumberford, a dentist who provides free dentistry for children in a mobile bus dental program, explains that since many commercial formulas contain sugar, it’s dangerous for this sweet milk to sit on a baby’s teeth for too long. He advises, “What I recommend to parents is wipe the baby’s teeth and gums clean with a soft wet washcloth, begin brushing your child’s teeth with children’s toothpaste when his or her teeth come in, floss the teeth and have regular dental checkups — the first checkup should be at 1-year-old.”
6. It’s gotten much better over time
Today, we conveniently mix up a bottle with a scoop of powder like it’s no big deal. But this concept of “artificial feeding” with a substance other than breast milk can be traced back to ancient times. Alternative methods of bottle feeding can be found in historical text from the Roman era to the Renaissance. Way back when, people were trying to get their babies fed when breastfeeding didn’t work out for one reason or another (a mother died in childbirth, for example). Far before the bottle was ever invented, terra-cotta pots with spouts were used to feed babies and were also found in infants’ graves. By the time the Industrial Revolution rolled around, bottle feeding was an accepted norm and hygienic sterilization methods were put into practice. The next time you go to make a bottle, appreciate how easy it is to pick up a can of formula at the grocery store: If you lived in 16th to 18th century Europe, you might have had to use a pap boat to feed a baby who wouldn’t latch — a device made from a hollow spoon that fed babies bread soaked in milk or water.
7. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
There’s a little secret that every new mom soon figures out: You don’t have to pick a team. You can ride the fence and supplement formula to extend your breast milk supply or give yourself a break as long as you damn well please. This pick-a-little, take-a-little attitude has its benefits: It can give you the best of both worlds by promoting breastfeeding longevity. University of California San Francisco researchers discovered that 79 percent of babies who had been given formula in the first days of their life, along with breast milk, were still breastfeeding at three months, compared to 42 percent of babies who were breastfed exclusively.