Breast vs. Bottle: Weighing Infant-Feeding Options

By Cari Nierenberg November 16, 2017
Scientific Editor: Rand Kittani
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Photo Of Woman Breastfeeding Her Child

Deciding the best way to feed a new baby is a very personal choice for a woman. Whether she chooses to breast-feed or use formula, feeding time is an important opportunity for a mother and baby to form a close bond with one another. 

When deciding how to feed her baby, a woman and her partner may think about several factors, such as the short- and long-term health benefits for mother and baby, financial considerations and comfort level with breast-feeding. They may also consider lifestyle characteristics, such as the time and convenience of one feeding method over another, a mother’s plans to return to work, and whether family members or other caregivers might be involved in feeding. 

Here are some benefits and challenges of breast-feeding and bottle-feeding to help women weigh the options and make an informed decision about infant feeding.

Photo of Baby Breastfeeding

Breast-feeding benefits for babies

Better nutrition. Health professionals consider a mother’s milk to be the ideal nourishment for her baby. It is more easily digested than formula, resulting in fewer bouts of diarrhea or constipation. Breast milk also contains nutrients important for brain growth, such as taurine, an amino acid, and DHA, a fatty acid.

Boosts immunity. Human milk provides immunological protection against colds, sore throats, strep throat, gastrointestinal diseases and ear infections. This happens because babies receive antibodies passed onto them from their mother’s milk, which helps boost their immune system and protect them from getting sick. 

Protects against allergies. Studies show that breast-fed babies tend to have fewer allergies than formula-fed infants, especially those given cow’s milk formulas. And research has found that infants who nurse may also be less likely to develop asthma and diabetes, or become overweight compared with babies who receive formula. Breast-fed babies tend to not be overfed in the same way as bottle-fed babies may be. 

Adds brain power. Some studies have suggested that children who were breast-fed have slightly higher IQs than babies who were given formula. 

Toddler Taking A Photo Of Her Parents

Breast-feeding benefits for mothers

Promotes bonding. Holding an infant close to feed from a woman’s breast creates a special bond between mother and baby. 

Saves money. Nursing is much cheaper than formula and is a more convenient feeding method. Mother Nature helps prepare a woman’s breasts for breast-feeding so that milk and colostrum (a mother’s first milk) will be there for her baby.

Improves recovery time. Some of the main health benefits of breast-feeding are that it enhances a woman’s physiological recovery after she delivers, Lawrence said. Women have less postpartum blood loss if they breast-feed, and the uterus goes back to its normal size within six weeks of delivering, she said. Since breast-feeding also burns more calories, nursing mothers tend to lose their “baby weight” quicker and regain their pre-pregnancy bodies, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Offers long-term health benefits. Nursing an infant also protects a woman’s health: Studies have found that women who breast-feed have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and they are also less likely to develop osteoporosis as they get older. 

Baby Holding Human Finger

Challenges of breast-feeding

Producing enough milk. One of the biggest challenges while breast-feeding is making enough milk to feed the baby, Lawrence said. And fatigue in women can get in the way of good milk production, she said.

When a woman is first starting to breast-feed, her nipples can become tender and her breasts sore as the baby latches on and nurses, and feedings may be painful and hurt. Unlike bottle-feeding, it can be hard to tell how much a breast-fed baby has eaten and whether a little one has had enough milk.

More frequent feedings. Another challenge facing mothers is that breast-fed babies need to eat more frequently than formula-fed infants so nursing a young baby can be a time-consuming task.

Affects lifestyle habits. And because she is the sole source of her newborn’s nourishment, some women may feel tied-down to nursing or find limited places in public to breast-feed. Her partner can become involved in feedings by bringing the baby to the mother when it’s time to nurse or feeding a bottle of breast milk if she pumps. 

Similar to being pregnant, a nursing mother will need to be conscientious about eating a healthy diet (she will also need an extra 400 to 500 calories a day) and modifying her lifestyle habits, such as drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes or marijuana, when she is breast-feeding compared with mothers who give their babies formula. 

Shy about nursing in public. Despite knowing its health benefits, some women may not feel comfortable breast-feeding, especially outside of the home, or have little interest in doing it. Women with certain medical conditions, such as HIV infection or active tuberculosis should avoid breast-feeding. And women who have had breast reduction surgery may have trouble breast-feeding if their milk ducts were removed.  

Some women may feel they have failed as a mother if they can’t breast-feed or feel guilty if they decide to switch infant-feeding methods as a baby gets older and they need to return to work. 

Limited support. If a woman is unfamiliar with breast-feeding and how to do it, there are classes available to help teach her before she gives birth, as well as peer-support groups, lactation consultants and organizations, such as La Leche League, to offer guidance and answer questions after she delivers.

Bottle-feeding benefits for mothers and babies

High-quality products. Although it cannot simulate mother’s milk, babies today are fortunate to have very good formula products that are carefully produced and distributed, Lawrence said. Formula is a good alternative when breast-feeding is not possible, and it is a more nutritious option for babies than evaporated milk or cow’s milk, which had once been used before formula was widely available, she explained.

Convenience. A woman might be able to arrange an infant-feeding schedule so she doesn’t have to get up at night; instead, a partner or caregiver can give the baby a bottle. 

Connection. With bottle feeding, a woman and her baby can still enjoy the emotional closeness and bonding experience, but it will lack the special connection of skin-to-skin contact that’s unique to the breast-feeding relationship.   

Person Holding Baby's Hand

Challenges of bottle-feeding

More preparation and expense. Bottles and nipples need to be sterilized, and if a woman is not using ready-to-use formula, which is more expensive, formula will be need to mixed and prepared. Specialty formulas, such as soy-based formulas and hypoallergenic formulas, can also cost more. 

Less protection from infection. Formula doesn’t provide all the specific nutrients that breast-feeding can offer, and a baby doesn’t get the same immune protection that’s found in mother’s milk, Lawrence said. As a result, a formula-fed infant is at greater risk for developing infections during the first year or two of life, she said. 

In addition, formula-fed babies are three times more likely to have ear infections compared with breast-fed infants, Lawrence said. She said this increased risk is because formula may back up into the infant’s Eustachian tube and middle ear when a baby is bottle-fed. But the Eustachian tube is closed when a baby suckles at the breast and this fluid doesn’t regurgitate back into the inner ear. 

Feeding Bottle on Table

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