Breast Milk or Formula?

Elena Shea MD, FAAP, IBCLC discusses the benefits of human milk and formula and focuses on ensuring babies are fed first.

As a mom of three, a full-time general pediatrician and internationally board-certified lactation consultant, I spend a lot of my time in clinic discussing breastfeeding. There is a lot of information and misinformation out there about the benefits of breastfeeding and what is best for your baby.

The topic is heated. And the answers are complex.

The final decision to feed your baby human milk, formula or both depends on some many factors and is personal for each family. I always encourage families to gather all the facts and then decide what works best for them.

The most important thing is to know is that feeding the baby should always come first. As moms, excitedly awaiting the birth of our child, we plan each aspect so carefully. But sometimes things don’t work out the way we expected. With each of my three children, I planned on breastfeeding. And with each, things worked out differently than I had imagined. I struggled to nurse my oldest two, needing to supplement with formula. My third breast-fed great from the start, or so I thought. But at a month, she had gained no weight and we had to transition to exclusive pumping (yes that counts as breastfeeding), and she never went back to breast. So, I know, from personal experience, how hard it can be to adapt our expectations to what the reality may be.

I am here to say that whatever you feed your baby is great. We want babies to be fed first, to grow and gain weight. Formula is a medical miracle and provides parents who can’t, or don’t want to, breastfeed a healthy nutritious option. Everyone’s journey is unique.


(Dr. Elena Shea built a course, which we host here, at SoMeDocs, called Dr. Shea Teaches How to Successfully Breastfeed to Nourishing Your Baby With Confidence)


So, let’s take a moment to talk about the advantages of breast milk and formula.


First, let’s talk about breast milk.

1. Breast milk is the perfect food for human babies. Breast milk provides the nutritional needs of growing human babies and changes depending on many factors, including how old the baby.

2. Breastfeeding protects babies against long term medical problems, like obesity, asthma and diabetes.

3. Breastmilk contains antibodies from mom that help build a baby’s immune system.

4. Breastfeeding can be done anywhere, at any time, with little or no equipment needed

5. Breastfeeding is good for maternal health as well. Studies show that breast feeding helps reduce mother’s risk of diabetes, ovarian and breast cancer and type 2 diabetes.

6. Breastfeeding can protect against postpartum depression.

7. These benefits continue as long as you are breastfeeding.



What about formula? Well, there are some benefits too:

1. Nutritionally, formula is a good substitute for breast milk. It is regulated by the FDA and generally has 20kcal/oz which is the average of breast milk (the calorie content in breast milk changes depending on the baby’s age and needs and can range for a full-term baby typically from 18klcal/oz to 23 kcal/oz).

2. If breastfeeding is challenging or if mom does not want or can’t nurse, formula can help alleviate stress and protect against postpartum depression. Also you also know exactly the amount and calories your baby is getting which can help reassure parents that their baby is getting enough food.

3. It allows others to feed the baby. Breastfeeding is solely mom’s job. Formula feeding (or bottle feeding in general if you are pumping breast milk) allows partners and other family members feed the baby and promotes bonding. We exclusively pumped with our third baby and my husband definitely has mentioned how much he enjoyed being able to feed her.

4. For babies with specialized nutritional needs, who can’t have human milk, formula is a life-saving medical development.


Breast feeding or formula? The best option is what works best for the family as a whole.

We encourage parents who want to nurse and are struggling, to talk to their pediatrician, their Ob/Gyn or local IBCLC. Support can be crucial to ensuring breastfeeding success. Whatever you choose to feed your baby, human milk, formula or both, you are doing an amazing job!!


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