Breastfeeding and Formula Feeding

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Quiz: Your Baby's First Year!

What are the disadvantages and benefits of breastfeeding?

The nutritional advantages of breast milk are certainly numerous. The amino acids in breast milk, the building blocks of proteins, are well balanced for the human baby, as are the sugars (primarily lactose) and fats. The baby's intestinal tract is best aided in its digestion by the vitamins, enzymes, and minerals found in breast milk. Breast milk also contains infection-fighting antibodies from the mother, and breastfed babies are believed to be at a reduced risk for many acute and chronic infections early in life. The cholesterol content is also high in human milk and very low in formulas. Cholesterol promotes brain growth and provides the building blocks of hormones, vitamin D, and intestinal bile.

Breast milk is also the least expensive way to feed an infant. However, the mother must maintain good nutrition and continue taking any vitamin/mineral supplements her doctor recommended during the pregnancy.

Formula-fed babies may also have the risk of developing an allergy to a particular formula. When a baby develops an allergy to formula, he or she may have symptoms that include irritability, crying after feedings, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or a skin rash. Concerns that your baby is having a formula allergy should be discussed with your baby's doctor.

Nursing helps most women lose weight (though not fluid) after delivery, as 500 calories or more are used by breastfeeding each day. Women who breastfeed also have a reduced risk for postpartum bleeding and a reduced risk for ovarian and breast cancer in the future.

Breastfeeding facilitates bonding between mother and baby. There is a well-accepted extra closeness that breastfeeding mothers experience that is both hormonal and emotional in nature.

The only disadvantages for the baby in breastfeeding occur when things are not going well, for example, if there's an inadequate supply of breast milk or an inefficient suck reflex in the baby. However, it is unusual for a mother not to produce enough milk for her baby unless she is not breastfeeding correctly or frequently enough. The disadvantages that most commonly arise involve the rest of the family. Siblings and dad often feel "left out" of baby care since mom is the only one who can do the nursing. However, other family members can be involved in helping with different aspects of the baby's care, and this gives them a valuable feeling of importance and allows mom a chance to rest.

Breastfed babies eat more often than formula-fed babies since breast milk is more quickly digested and leaves the stomach empty more frequently. This puts a little more stress on the mother because of the potential necessity for more frequent feedings. If the mother develops certain medical conditions, whether or not to continue breastfeeding may need to be reassessed. These conditions should always be discussed with the doctor. However, it is rare that breastfeeding would need to be discontinued completely. In any interaction, the mother's doctor and/or pharmacist should be informed that she is breastfeeding. Some medicines should be avoided during breastfeeding. Numerous other medications have not yet been adequately studied in the context of breastfeeding and the possible effects on the baby. If a breastfeeding mother is required to take a medication which has not been fully studied, she may want to consider discussing this matter with her doctor.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/26/2016

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