Breast Milk or Formula? The never-ending debate!

Breast milk or formula? The never-ending debate! Read about the benefits and disadvantages of each so you can choose what is best for your child. | Mom but not a Mom

Formula or breastmilk? You’ve probably heard the popular slogan “Breast is best”, and after doing a LOT of research, this definitely seems to be true. There are plenty of benefits to breast feeding that formula cannot provide.

But are their times when it is appropriate to use formula instead of or in addition to breast milk? I think so.

What about other alternatives? Goat’s milk, cow’s milk, milk substitutes… Let’s explore the world of infant feeding and I’ll tell you everything I’ve learned from experience and (hours of) research.

Breast Milk

Breast feeding is on the rise in the United States, and is more prevalent among whites, Hispanics, and women with higher levels of education (Ryan, Wenjun, & Acosta, 2002).

Let’s be honest, breast milk has a lot going for it.

Immune System Benefits

Because the baby is receiving antibodies from the mother, breastfed babies get many immune system benefits which decrease the chance of sickness and disease significantly. These benefits are not just immediate, however. Research suggests that many benefits are carried on into adult life. Particularly disorders relating to obesity are prevented by breastfeeding (Turck, 2005).

Breastfed babies also have lower incidences of genetic allergies (in which parents or other close relatives exhibit allergic symptoms). It remains controversial whether breastfeeding prevents other allergies (Friedman & Zeiger, 2005).

Additionally, Celiac Disease has been found to be significantly less common in children who were breastfeeding at the time they were introduced to gluten (Eidelman & Schanler, 2012)

Sleep Benefits

You’ve probably heard that turkey makes you sleepy because it contains tryptophan, a precursor to melatonin which is the sleep hormone. Well, did you know that breast milk also contains tryptophan? This is what helps regulate circadian rhythms in infants. Because formula does not contain tryptophan, studies show that breastfed infants sleep better and more regularly than their formula fed counterparts (J. Cubero, V. Valero, J. Sánchez, M. Rivero, H. Parvez, A. B. Rodríguez & C. Barriga, 2005).

“I don’t want my baby to sleep well” – said no mom ever.

Cognitive Benefits

The World Health Organization and UNICEF got together to conduct an investigation into the role breastfeeding plays in children’s cognitive development. Across the board, children who were exclusively breastfed performed better on all tests of intelligence, reading, and writing. There have also been other analyses done over the years which had similar conclusions, determining that breast-fed children scored higher than formula fed children on tests of intelligence.

Additionally, it has been noted that the longer children were breast-fed, the greater the benefits that were seen. It goes against our current culture to breast-feed babies for longer than a year, but studies prove that benefits to the child continue several years into breast-feeding.

The question remains whether there is a component in breast-milk itself that improves cognition, or whether the act of breast-feeding increases mother-child interaction thereby leading to stronger cognitive skills in the infant. Either way, there is strong evidence supporting breast-feeding as an important foundation for cognitive development.

Kramer, Aboud, Mironova, Vanilovich, Platt, Matush, Igumnov, Fombonne, Bogdanovich, Ducruet, Collet, Chalmers, Hodnett, Davidovsky, Skugarevsky, Trofimovich, Kozlova, & Shapiro

Weight Information

As previously stated, breastfed babies tend to have less childhood obesity cases than do formula fed babies. (S Arenz, R Rückerl, B Koletzko & R von Kries, 2004).

It should be noted that current weight trends in infants are based off of all infants, including those who are formula fed. An exclusively or primarily breastfed baby will probably not gain weight in the same pattern as a formula fed baby (Eidelman & Schanler, 2012).

When my best friend had her baby, the doctor told her at his six month check-up that he was under nourished and needed supplementation. Being a nurse, she did her own research into breastfed baby growth charts and discovered that her child was 100% normal with regards to his weight gain.

Maternal Benefits

Quicker return to pre-pregnancy weight!

How exciting is that? Breastfeeding actually helps your body regulate hormones in such a way that shedding those baby pounds is easier (Turck, 2005)

Prolonged menstrual freedom!

Your period won’t be so hasty to return if you are signaling to your body that you still have a young baby to take care of. This is your body’s natural birth control to spread out your pregnancies. However, if you are trying to have two children in a row with very little space in between, you might want to consider breastfeeding for less time or using a breast milk substitute so you can get pregnant again (P. W. Howie, A. S. McNeilly, M. J. Houston, A. Cook, & H. Boyle, 1982).


We see that clearly there are many benefits to breastfeeding over formula feeding. However, every year there are over a million deaths caused by breastfeeding. Why is that?

There are two significant scenarios in which formula feeding should be favoured over breastfeeding.

When the mother has a disease that can be transmitted to the child through her breastmilk

Obviously HIV is the major disease that is problematic for breastfeeding mothers, but there are others which need to be taken into consideration for the health of the child.

When the mother is not producing enough milk

There were multiple mothers at the daycare who insisted on exclusively breastfeeding their children even though the amount of milk they were producing was not sufficient nutrition for their infant. It’s heartbreaking to see a baby who is miserably hungry day after day.

While this may be the unavoidable reality for mothers in developing countries who don’t have enough nutrition for themselves to pass on to their infants, mothers in developed countries have no excuse. You must see that your child is properly fed and hydrated. The amount of milk that children need differs from child to child, but there is nothing wrong with supplementing with formula or non-human milk if you are not producing enough breastmilk to promote satiation and timely development for your infant. (J. Brady, 2012)

Nutritional Value

One of the main problems that I have with formula is the common misconception that babies need less formula than breast milk.

Here is the truth: While formula is indeed more filling in babies’ tummies than breast milk is, the reason is that formula is supplemented with thickening agents such as corn starch. However, the nutritional value is not increased. So while baby may feel full after drinking less formula than breast milk, he is not receiving the same amount of actual nutrition.

Alternatives and Substitutes

Goat and Cow’s Milk

Goat’s milk has been proposed as a substitute for infants suffering from allergies to cow’s milk or cow’s milk formula. There is a problem, however, which is the same problem cow’s milk and even formula has: Breast milk has a higher water content and other milks are simply not as hydrating comparatively. Watering down the milk, while it increases hydration, decreases the nutritional content per serving (Taitz & Artmitage, 1984).

This is what the research says, and I’m not about to argue with it. However, from personal experience I would like to throw in the note that my grandmother fed all four of her children on cow’s milk from the time they were born and none of them seemed adversely affected by this.

Soy and Almond Milk

This was the saddest part of my research collection. Both soy and almond milk have been attempted by vegans as substitutions for infants, and all research on the topic indicated that they caused severe nutritional deficits up to and including infant death.

What has been your experience? Did you breastfeed or formula feed?

Does anyone have experience with using other substitutes such as cow or goat’s milk, soy milk, or other? I would be curious. There didn’t seem to be a lot of available research on these.

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