According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), only 13% of mothers in the United States meet their recommendations for infant nutrition. (1)(2)
CDC, WHO, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend:
- Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life.
- Breastfeeding supplemented with appropriate complementary foods for 1 year or longer.
Why Aren’t We All Breastfed?
In the midst of labor, anything can happen.
The nourishment that a baby receives at birth can provide long-term health benefits or increase the risk of certain disorders, like obesity or type I diabetes. Breast milk is designed to promote development and nourish a baby's inner ecosystem.
Even if you never planned to have an epidural or a C-section delivery, these plans get thrown out the window once the health of either mother or baby is in jeopardy. As it turns out, these procedures, while potentially life-saving, affect the ability of breast milk to letdown, or flow.
In fact, studies have found that the stress of nurses coming and going during labor is enough to slow milk supply. (3) Studies have also found that the same can be said of an epidural during labor. (4)
Cortisol given during preterm labor can also make it difficult to initiate and sustain milk production. (5)
Sometimes the case is that a mother has more than enough milk but still struggles to feed her baby. This could be due to:
- A lip-tie or tongue-tie, which can inhibit a proper latch.
- Infant colic or acid reflux.
In either case, nursing can be a traumatic experience for both parties. Just because mama and baby were designed to nourish each other during those first several months of a newborn’s life, it doesn’t mean it’s easy!
The Benefits of Breast Milk
The complexity of breast milk goes far beyond its nutritional value.
It turns out that what a woman eats and her health prior to conception affect both fetal development and breast milk. (6)(7)
Besides nourishing a newborn with macronutrients (sugars, fat, and protein) and micronutrients (things like vitamins and minerals), breast milk:
- Protects against infection
- Reduces inflammation (8)
- Promotes development of the brain, the immune system, and the gut
- Shapes a baby’s inner ecosystem, or unique community of gut bacteria (9)(10)
A newborn experiences massive shifts of growth and adaption during the first several months of life. And the surface of a baby’s gastrointestinal tract responds to the proteins and nutrients that are found in either breast milk or formula.
What Does Breast Milk Have That Formula Doesn’t?
1. Breast milk is equipped with tools that educate and buffer the immune response system in the body.
Colostrum, which is secreted by a woman for the first several days after birth, comes in very small quantities. So small, that you may worry about whether or not it is enough to feed your newborn baby.
While the yellow milk of colostrum may not look like much, it offers plenty! Colostrum contains high amounts of:
- Secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), lactoferrin, and human milk oligosaccharides (HMO), all of which protect the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. (11)
- Growth factors.
- Chemical messengers called cytokines that can soothe an inflammatory response in the still-forming intestinal tract of a newborn.
At birth, the gut of a newborn is sterile. As days and weeks pass, the gastrointestinal tract of a newborn picks up signals. These signals prompt the immune system and the inner ecology to form. (12)(13) Depending on what nourishment a newborn receives, this can benefit a baby, or it can increase risk factors for certain health disorders like obesity or type I diabetes. (14)
Many of the signals that positively shape the inner ecology of a newborn are found in breast milk. For example, human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) specifically nourish strains of Bifidobacteria. (15) Because oligosaccharides nourish a robust inner ecology, they have also been associated with resistance to allergies and infection.
As it turns out, the protein fragments found in breast milk (called alpha-lactalbumin and lactoferrin) also selectively nourish beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. (16)
2. Breast milk feeds the brain.
Breast milk contains high concentrations of nutrients that support brain development. (17) These are things like:
- Sialic acid
- Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids
Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, in particular docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), are found in breast milk at much higher concentrations than in cow’s milk. A diet high in fish oils can influence just how much of these beneficial fatty acids are found in your breast milk.
Studies note that while infant formulas will supplement these fatty acids, it has been difficult to gather information about the long-term effects. (18)
What to Do If Breast Feeding Is Not an Option
There are many reasons why a new mother chooses not to breastfeed her child. Sometimes, it’s not even a matter of choice. It’s a matter of ability.
If you need to return to work after your baby is born, or if you have adopted a newborn, relying on some kind of formula seems essential.
In these situations, you can still optimize your child’s nutrition and development.
When you walk into a grocery store, there is not one packaged food that you could not make better if you made it at home. The same principle applies to formula. Whatever you would buy in a store, you can make a healthier version in your own kitchen.
The Weston A. Price Foundation has published wonderful formulas that can be prepared at home. These formulas more closely duplicate a mother's breast milk. One formula in particular uses liver and bone broth, and it is free of dairy.
What To Remember Most About This Article:
Based on statistics from the CDC and WHO, a mere 13% of mothers in the US meet the recommendations for infant nutrition. Mothers are advised to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of a baby's life and supplement with solid foods and breast milk for one year or longer.
Still, new mothers can tell you that in labor, you must expect the unexpected. A mother may have an unplanned epidural or C-section delivery, which could affect her milk letdown after birth. A mother may also struggle to feed her baby due to a lip-tie, tongue-tie, or acid reflux.
Breastfeeding an infant can provide much more than nutritional benefits to protect against infection, reduce inflammation, promote brain and immune system development, and support gut health to shape a baby’s inner ecosystem. Compared to formula, breast milk is fully equipped to educate and buffer the immune response system in the body, while nourishing beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract.
If breastfeeding isn't an option, you can still support your child's nutrition and development by making formula that mimics natural breast milk at home.
- WHO. Infant and Young Child Nutrition: Global Strategy on infant and young child feeding. 2012;http://apps.who.int/gb/archive/ pdf_files/WHA55/ea5515.pdf.
- CDC. Breastfeeding promotion. http://wwwcdcgov/breastfeeding/ promotion/indexhtm 2010.
- Chen DC, Nommsen-Rivers L, Dewey KG, Lonnerdal B. Stress during labor and delivery and early lactation performance. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998;68:335–44.
- Beilin Y, Bodian CA, Weiser J, Hossain S, Arnold I, Feierman DE, et al. Effect of labor epidural analgesia with and without fentanyl on infant breast-feeding: a prospective, randomized, double-blind study. Anesthesiology. 2005;103:1211–7.
- Henderson JJ, Hartmann PE, Newnham JP, Simmer K. Effect of preterm birth and antenatal corticosteroid treatment on lactogen- esis II in women. Pediatrics. 2008;121:e92–e100.
- Heerwagen MJ, Miller MR, Barbour LA, Friedman JE. Maternal obesity and fetal metabolic programming: a fertile epigenetic soil. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2010. doi:10.1152/ ajpregu.00310.2010.
- Dabelea D, Crume T. Maternal environment and the transgenera- tional cycle of obesity and diabetes. Diabetes. 2011;60:1849– 55.
- Walker A. Breast milk as the gold standard for protectivenutrients. J Pediatr. 2010;156:S3–7.
- Kau AL, Ahern PP, Griffin NW, Goodman AL, Gordon JI. Human nutrition, the gut microbiome and the immune system. Nature. 2011;474:327–36.
- Zivkovic AM, German JB, Lebrilla CB, Mills DA. Human milk glycobiome and its impact on the infant gastrointestinal microbiota. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011;108 Suppl 1:4653–8.
- Neville MC, Morton J, Umemora S. Lactogenesis: the transition from pregnancy to lactation. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2001;48:35–52.
- Palmer C, Bik EM, DiGiulio DB, Relman DA, Brown PO. Development of the human infant intestinal microbiota. PLoS Biol. 2007;5:e177.
- Reinhardt C, Reigstad CS, Backhed F. Intestinal microbiota dur- ing infancy and its implications for obesity. J Pediatr Gastro- enterol Nutr. 2009;48:249–56.
- Patelarou, E., Girvalaki, C., Brokalaki, H., Patelarou, A., Androulaki, Z. and Vardavas, C. (2012), Current evidence on the associations of breastfeeding, infant formula, and cow's milk introduction with type 1 diabetes mellitus: a systematic review. Nutrition Reviews, 70: 509–519. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2012.00513.x
- Sela DA, Chapman J, Adeuya A, Kim JH, Chen F, Whitehead TR, et al. The genome sequence of Bifidobacterium longum subsp. infantis reveals adaptations for milk utilization within the infant microbiome. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008;105:18964–9.
- Liepke C, Adermann K, Raida M, Magert HJ, Forssmann WG, Zucht HD. Human milk provides peptides highly stimulating the growth of bifidobacteria. Eur J Biochem. 2002;269:712–8.
- Neville MC, Picciano MF. Regulation of milk lipid synthesis and composition. Ann Rev Nutrition. 1997;17:159–84.
- Campoy C, Escolano-Margarit MV, Ramos R, Parrilla-Roure M, Csabi G, Beyer J, et al. Effects of prenatal fish-oil and 5- methyltetrahydrofolate supplementation on cognitive development of children at 6.5 y of age. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94:1880S–8S.