A new baby entering your life comes with many decisions. As a new parent, choosing between formula or breast milk (or a combination of the two) for your baby’s diet can be complicated depending on your lifestyle, support system, or schedule.
There may be many factors that influence your personal decision to breastfeed or use formula. Before we get into the comparisons, we want to point out that you don’t need to solely pick one or the other.
Many mothers choose to combo feed, using both formula and breast milk. The black-and-white comparisons perpetuate the all-or-nothing mindset when it comes to breastfeeding. For example, sometimes, a mother might not be able to produce enough milk to cover all the baby’s needs, but that doesn’t mean she needs to abandon ship if she doesn’t want to. Any amount of breast milk still provides infants with the benefits we’re about to review below.
Additionally, some families might benefit from donor breast milk. Non-profit organizations like the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) test and send out donated breast milk to infants in need.
Now that we’ve touched on those important notes, let’s cover the main differences between breast milk and formula, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each method.
Infant nutrition is one of the main concerns when considering your baby’s diet. There are significant differences in nutritional components when comparing formula and breast milk. Both food sources include all of the nutrients necessary for your baby’s growth and development.
Breast Milk Offers More Antibodies
Infant formula contains adequate nutrition, including the necessary vitamins, proteins, sugars, and fats for your baby’s diet. However, formula does lack some of the unique nutritional benefits naturally produced in breast milk.
The antibodies produced in colostrum and mature breast milk cannot be artificially replicated. Consequently, it supports an infant’s immune system better than formula. Breast milk is not a stationary, set recipe — it can change and adapt to present flu or cold viruses, adjusting to provide antibodies specifically to guard against illnesses the mother comes in contact with.
Formula Has More Vitamin D
Vitamin D is one essential nutrient included in formula that typically exists in insufficient levels in breast milk. The levels of Vitamin D in breast milk depend on the mother’s intake and supplementation of Vitamin D, which passes through the bloodstream to the milk and then to the baby.
With appropriate vitamin D intake, the lactating mother can fully transfer from her blood to her milk the vitamin D required to sustain optimal vitamin D nutrition in the nursing infant with no additional supplementation required for the infant.
Because of this fluctuation of the total amount of vitamin D passed through the milk or the mother not supplementingvitamin D for herself, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that breastfed babies receive a vitamin Dsupplement to ensure the need is met.
Supplementation of this nutrient is important until your baby is consuming enough vitamin D-fortified milk, formula, or a vitamin D-rich diet after solids become a primary source of overall nutrition.
There are many health incentives for your baby to consume their mother’s milk. The AAPrecommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life, and the World Health Organization (WHO) agrees. They also say that breastfeeding can have incredible benefits for the first year of the child’s life and beyond. At six months, solid foods can be slowly introduced while continuing to breastfeed.
Breast Milk Supports Digestion
Human milk is easily digested by newborns. Breastfed babies may suffer less indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea than formula-fed infants.
Breast Milk May Help Prevent Allergies
Breast milk may also help prevent allergies later on in life. A mother’s diet, when varied, can expose an infant to new allergens early on, bolstering their immune system.
Still, it’s not unheard of for breast milk to cause an allergic reaction in infants. According to the AAP, while it’s uncommon, some breastfed babiesexperience allergies. The organization estimates this number to be roughly two or three out of every 100 infants.
Usually, a mother will need to adjust her diet to resolve the allergy the baby is experiencing. However, certain known allergies can be slowly introduced through breast milk to overcome the allergen.
Formula-fed babies can also be lactose intolerant. In this case, it’s generally recommended that caregivers switch to buying lactose-free formula. Lactose-free formulas include soy-based forms and those made with a corn-based carbohydrate source.
Typically, babies will outgrow their sensitivities to cow’s milk, but allergies to other foods may be lifelong.
Both Formula and Breast Milk Can Influence Allergies
Be aware of skin rashes, abnormal bowel movements, abdominal discomfort, vomiting, trouble breathing, or other allergic reactions, and consult your care provider or pediatrician immediately if these symptoms occur.
The AAP states that breastfeeding for the first six months may significantly reduce the possibility of food sensitivities, even in families with a strong history of allergies.
Exclusively breastfeeding can decrease the chances of developing both food allergies and eczema. This is a condition where the skin is extremely dry and easily irritated. This is another positive of using breast milk.
Breastfeeding Offers Health Benefits for Moms
There are many physical and emotional benefits for your baby while breastfeeding. Surprisingly, this connection also supportspositive health outcomes for breastfeeding mothers, decreasing the risk of some women’s health issues.
The benefits for moms may include:
It could reduce the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
It may lower the chances of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, and uterine cancer.
It can help with burning calories and shrinking the uterus.
Lifestyle may play a role in deciding between formula or breast milk. Infant feeding is a time commitment, and it can be challenging to balance other responsibilities, especially with a newborn.
There are really only two options, formula or donor milk. For a parent who is unable or prefers not to breastfeed or cannot produce enough milk. Formula and bottle-feeding include the process of sterilizing supplies and preparation for each feeding. Formula also needs to be purchased on a regular basis.
In comparison to formula, breast milk is readily available in many cases. Breastfeeding mothers must be near their baby or be able to pump when they’re away. This is where work and life’s schedule may influence the decision to use breastmilk or formula-feed.
A portable breast pump is a fantastic solution for breastfeeding mothers who still need the freedom to move, travel, or work outside the home or to support the decision to exclusively pump as a personal choice or necessity. There are many types of pumps to suit your individual needs to help make breastfeeding more convenient.
Hospital-grade breast pumps and in-bra wearable pumps are the most commonly used. The main difference is performance; hospital-grade strength is the strongest and best for milk removal and production. Wearable pumps are not quite as strong, but they can be more convenient and offer discretion to the user.
Pros of Using a Breast Pump:
- Can have a positive impact on milk supply
- Allows for the storage of excess milk
- Gives other caregivers a chance to step in and assist with feedings
- Supports the personal freedom and choices of breastfeeding mothers
Using formula or pumping and bottle-feeding your baby can be convenient for allowing other caregivers to step in and assist with feeding schedules. This can help to reduce the physical and mental load associated with meeting the continuous demands of a hungry newborn or baby.
Feeding your baby is extremely gratifying regardless of how you choose to do it. It is fulfilling an emotional connection and strengthens the bond between caregivers and baby.
Skin-to-skin contact can encourage this bond whether your baby is breastfed or formula-fed. This can be practiced by parents or other caregivers while feeding, helping regulate breathing and temperature while establishing feelings of safety and security.
Breastfeeding naturally allows for this skin-to-skin contact to occur, but it can also be prioritized with bottle or formula feedings.
Support From Community
It’s often said that it takes a village to help raise a child. This is no understatement when it comes to establishing a family, caring for newborns, and raising young children. Community is essential in this process.
Your support system may influence whether you choose to use formula or breast milk.
Bottle feeding with either breast milk or formula allows other caregivers to step in and assist with the process. If breastfeeding, using an electric or manual breast pump will be essential.
Sometimes there are challenges associated with learning to breastfeed for mom and baby. There may be difficulties getting your baby to latch or initial pain while adjusting to breastfeeding. Patience and practice are essential throughout this process.
Extra support may come in the form of a health care provider or lactation consultant to help the baby learn to latch and teach effective techniques for breastfeeding. This can help ease the breastfeeding process for mom and baby.
Raising a newborn and starting a family is known as a costly endeavor. Expenses may influence your decision when deciding between breastmilk or formula.
Breastfeeding and Pumping Are More Cost-Effective
Formulas must be made in a factory and purchased from a store. A year’s worth of formula alone costs upwards of $1,500, with varying formulations, such as those without certain allergens costing more.
However, it’s important to note that while more affordable than formula feeding, breast milk isn’t really “free.” It can cost an average of $1,000 on the high end to purchase everything needed to breastfeed comfortably. This number is more about the upfront cost, including nursing and pumping bras and breast pump(s) — manual/electric. Then, add in additional components and replacement parts, storage bags, supplements, and other supplies.
When breastfeeding, a pump and its accessories may be critical in maintaining your feeding schedule. Luckily, the cost of some breast pumps and the replacement of components over time, as well as milk storage options, may be covered by insurance. This is one way to reduce costs associated with obtaining the supplies necessary for breastfeeding.
Formula vs. Breast Milk: Summary
Many factors may influence your decision to use formula or breastfeed your baby. Ultimately, the main goal is that your choices are in the best interest and meet the needs of both you and your baby.
There are certainly some positives and negatives to consider about each food source and method:
Pros of Formula:
- It allows other caregivers to assist with feedings.
- It contains all necessary nutrients, including vitamin D.
- It does not rely on steady milk production.
Cons of Formula:
- It does not share antibodies from mother to baby.
- It has fewer benefits for the immune system and overall health.
- It can be expensive or difficult to find in stores.
Pros of Breast Milk:
- Milk is produced specifically to meet your baby’s nutritional requirements.
- It encourages incredible health benefits for mom and baby.
- It comes with lower costs overall; costs are mostly associated with supplies if needed.
Cons of Breast Milk:
- The process of breastfeeding or pumping may be challenging at first until both mom and baby learn the process.
- A vitamin Dsupplement is often necessary.
- Mom must be near her baby if exclusively nursing (using a manual or electric breast pump may provide freedom and options).
Final Thoughts for Now
Deciding whether to give your baby breast milk or formula leaves a lot to consider. Ultimately, you decide what will be best for you and your baby. There may be many factors that influence this choice.
The journey of feeding your baby can look so many different ways. Both breast milk and formula include the necessary nutrients for the growth of your baby. You are the only one who knows the right choice for you and your baby. Remember, the main goal is a healthy baby and a healthy mama.
American Academy of Pediatrics Calls for More Support for Breastfeeding Mothers Within Updated Policy Recommendations | AAP
Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding (for Parents) | Nemours KidsHealth
Infant Allergies and Food Sensitivities | HealthyChildren.org
Should I Breastfeed or Bottlefeed? | HealthyChildren.org
Vitamin D | Breastfeeding | CDC
Breastfeeding and the Flu | Oklahoma State Department of Health
New evidence on how breastmilk prevents food allergies | The University of Western Australia
Mother–Infant Skin-to-Skin Contact: Short‐ and Long-Term Effects for Mothers and Their Children Born Full-Term | Frontiers
Breast-feeding is cheaper than the bottle but don't think it's free | USA Today
What to Know About Donating Your Breast Milk and Receiving Donated Milk | Verywell Family