Breastmilk vs Formula

Across all sources of parenting advice, including health organisations such as the NHS, individual advisors such as midwives and fellow parents and blogs such as this one, there are some conflicting opinions on whether breastmilk or formula is best. This can be distressing for soon-to-be parents who are researching ways to give their baby the best start in life, especially if they’re welcoming their first child and aren’t sure who to trust.

At Direct4Baby, we’re here to help you make the right decision for you and your baby, summarising advice on how best to navigate through this stage, no matter which decision you make for yourself and baby.

Is breastmilk or formula better?

Before we cover the volume of research that has gone into discovering whether breastfeeding or formula feeding is better for mothers and babies, allow us to first establish that the absolute best thing for a baby is for the mother to feel happy and comfortable.

All too often, mothers feel pressured into going against their natural instincts and personal preferences by advisors who show a lack of understanding for individual circumstances. At Direct4Baby, we want you to know that, while understanding the particulars of the breastmilk vs formula debate is worthwhile, the ultimate decision does not belong to midwives, experts, friends, doctors or anyone in between; it is always your individual choice.

Listening to an influx of outside opinions on this sensitive subject can inflict feelings of confusion, guilt and loneliness can exacerbate, so it’s incredibly important that those around expectant parents do not try to force them into choices they aren’t comfortable with.

If you or a family member is struggling with feelings caused by anxiety around feeding or anything else, remember that you are not alone. Support is available through the NHS or, if you’d prefer to seek outside help, there are plenty of mental health charities such as Mind, Tommy’s and PaNDAS with support systems in place that are easy to approach either by phone, in person or online.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of breastfeeding?

Health benefits of breastfeeding

As you likely have already heard, read or been told, there are plenty of health advantages available for both mother and baby when breastfeeding.

For the baby, breast milk contains all the nutrients needed throughout infancy, meaning they can be fed solely on breast milk for the first 6 months of life. It has also been claimed that, due to the antibodies it contains, breast milk provides a boost to the immune system, meaning fewer illnesses for the baby during their infancy. The health benefits of breastfeeding also extend to the mother as research shows they are less prone to certain types of cancer, specifically breast and ovarian cancer.

Health disadvantages of breastfeeding

In some cases, mothers will have trouble producing breast milk. There are lots of reasons this could happen, with the list including a historical breast surgery, a side effect of some medication, excessive blood loss during birth and much more. If a mother is not producing enough milk, for whatever reason, to support the recommended growth rate for their baby, their baby could suffer negative health defects. In these cases, exclusively breastfeeding may not be an option and supporting low milk production with formula may be the best option. Speaking to a midwife about ways to increase milk production is another option for women uncomfortable with formula feeding.

Psychological benefits of breastfeeding

One of the most cherished psychological benefits of breastfeeding is the close connection it can provide between mother and baby. The still moments of breastfeeding can be therapeutic and provide mother and baby with a quiet moment to spend together. The skin on skin contact is similarly therapeutic, giving both a chance for a physical closeness that there often isn’t time for in the busy life of new parents.

Psychological disadvantages of breastfeeding

When it comes to breastfeeding, there are two primary psychological disadvantages that are often overlooked or ignored, when the healthier thing to do is to acknowledge and deal with them. Firstly, there is the case of pressure from outsiders to breastfeed. Singing the praises of breastfeeding and presenting it as the only choice for women is a dangerous thing to do. This mindset of ‘breast is best’ often pressures new mothers or parents into breastfeeding even if they don’t want to do so or physically are unable to. The choice of how to feed a baby is a very personal decision and the fear of judgement from others can take a psychological toll.

Secondly, related to the matter of pressure and choice is the sensitive issue of lack of choice. There are many situations in which breastfeeding is simply not an option, including adoption, surrogacy and illness, all of which mean there is no source of breast milk for the baby. In these cases, despite breastfeeding not being a viable choice, parents may still receive judgement from those around them. This can lead to guilt and distress for the parents where there should be only support and love.

Both of these disadvantages stem from a recurring problem that surrounds the entire pregnancy, birthing and postpartum arena which can be boiled down to one statement: women have limited choices over their own bodies. Whether its the question of abortion, birth preferences, breastfeeding or anything else, a mother is in charge of her own body and should be free to make her own choices, no matter what. So, whether you feel more comfortable bottle feeding, have always wanted to breastfeed or would like to try a combination of the two - you are always free to choose.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of formula feeding?

Health benefits of formula feeding

Unlike with breastfeeding where a baby should be fed as and when they are hungry, formula feeding allows for a much more accurate recording of the frequency and volume of feedings. This information is valuable for a number of reasons, allowing parents to work out a baby’s daily milk intake should it become important for a hospital appointment, as well as working out quickly whether a baby is not getting enough milk to make a healthy growth rate.

Parents may also be concerned that formula may not have as much nutritional value as breast milk. This is an understandable worry as breast milk has been shown to contain specifically tailored antibodies that are highly beneficial but, for those who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed, formula is a suitable replacement that contains all a baby needs to grow.

Health disadvantages of formula feeding

There are no health disadvantages to formula feeding, only fewer advantages than breastfeeding. While breastfeeding can reduce the risk of illness and obesity in infancy and early childhood, formula feeding does NOT increase these risks - that would only be the case if breastfeeding were the norm, which it is not. However a parent wishes to feed their baby should be entirely free of an assumed method.

Psychological benefits of formula feeding

While breastfeeding gives a chance to build a close connection between baby and mother, formula feeding invites the wider family to share in the joy of this simple yet precious activity. Bonding is important for both parents and even the baby’s siblings so using formula in a bottle is a great way to create bonding moments that would otherwise be reserved solely for the mother or parent.

This method also shares the sometimes draining responsibilities of feeding across more people, allowing parent’s time to rest. This is particularly important through the first 6 months as it is recommended that parents be available for exclusive breastfeeding day and night, leaving them with little personal time to eat and rest. Even if a mother has chosen breastfeeding, sharing the feeding duties in this way remains an option as milk can be expressed and bottled, allowing access to all the benefits of bottle feeding.

Benefits of breastfeeding and formula feeding

As with many things, the formula vs breast milk debate does not have to be so black and white. Instead, many parents have found a comfortable middle ground of combination feeding. This means feeding with breastmilk sometimes and formula feeding others. The ratio of formula to breast milk can be whatever suits the mother best, for example, if a mother returns to work early, the baby could be fed on a diet of formula while she’s away and have breast milk when home. If you’re considering a combination of breastfeeding and formula feeding, test out multiple ratios to find that situation that best suits you and your baby.

The NHS’s and WHO’s stance on formula vs breast milk

If you’ve been to an NHS hospital or have been visited by an NHS midwife regarding your pregnancy you will likely already be acquainted with the slogan ‘Breast is Best’. A slogan used by many midwives working within the National Health Service, ‘Breast is Best’ has long since been the advice given to new parents working out how they want to keep their baby happy and healthy. The World Health Organisation’s official stance on breastfeeding vs bottle feeding is very much in line with that of the NHS. Their primary recommendation is that mothers should exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months of their newborn’s life* before continuing past this stage on a mix of breastfeeding and other foods.

While both the NHS and the WHO provide evidence for this position, referencing many of the same benefits of breastfeeding that we’ve already covered above, they fail to address the subject of choice. While breastfeeding is a healthy option for babies, if the parent is uncomfortable or unable to breastfeed for any reason, or even if they simply don’t want to breastfeed, this line of forcing breastfeeding can do more damage than good.

Studies performed by experts across the world* have suggested that this generation of breastfeeding, and the subsequent scrutiny of formula feeding, has already had a huge adverse effect on parents across the globe.

Formula vs breast milk: the choice is yours

As we’ve said throughout this blog post, the absolute most important thing for the health of your baby is that you are happy, comfortable and free to make choices for yourself. It can be hard to shut out the pressures others try to place on you but it is our hope that the world will move forward and those pressures will ease over time. It’s time to forget ‘Breast is Best’ and move onto what many more forward-thinking midwives have adopted: ‘Fed is Best’.

No matter what you decide, the experts here at Direct4Baby have all the knowledge and experience needed to support you on your feeding journey. Whether you are in need of formula makers and bottle feeders to make the process of bottle feeding safe and simple or are looking for nursing scarves and baby bibs for comfortable breastfeeding, find everything you need to feed your baby online at Direct4Baby.