Posted in Breastfeeding and Childcare

The Benefits of Breastfeeding and the Dangers of Formula: Two Sides of the Same Coin

In April 2012, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) released a poster called “21 Dangers of Infant Formula”.  It has since been making the rounds of social media.  The intent is to create awareness and provide evidence-based information (the document includes references for each of its claims).   Surprisingly, it has been the object of some pretty violent reactions.  Some claim that campaigns such as this are ‘judgemental’ and ‘unfair’ to formula-feeding mothers who are being judged by society enough as it is.

Click here to view the PDF with references

Also in 2012, just a month before this poster was released, the American Academy of Pediatrics published an update of its policy statement on Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.  Here is a simplified version of the table that appears on the 3rd page of the document and lists the Dose-Response Benefits of Breastfeeding.   The 17-page document discusses other benefits not included in this table.  I have yet to read a violent response to this one.

Dose-Response Benefits of Breastfeeding

Both documents contain similar information, the main difference being  what each considers to be the norm/standard.  The WABA document assumes that breastfeeding is the norm or the default choice.  And so it lists what the baby loses/risks when giving up breastfeeding and choosing formula in its place.  The AAP document enumerates how breastfeeding is superior, with formula as the base option.  According to the AAP,  a 6 month-old baby who is still breastfeeding exclusively has a 50% decreased risk of having an ear infection, and in WABA-speak,  a 6 month-old baby on formula has twice the risk of getting an ear infection when compared with a breastfed baby.  It really is just 2 sides of the same coin.

As far as feeding options for infants go, there really aren’t very many choices.  The choices are human milk or infant formula.  Things like juice, water, rice water, soup, condensed milk, evaporated milk, non-dairy creamer are absolutely inappropriate for infants (and yet many mothers who start with formula and cannot afford to sustain it end up feeding their children one or all of these – but let’s leave that for another post).

Surely, in order for a mother to make a good choice, she should be armed with the proper information.  Honestly, if I had learned all this in medical school, I would have done everything in my power even then to help my patients breastfeed.  It is information that is useful to all mothers – whether they choose to breastfeed or formula feed – and it is information that is useful to anyone who cares for babies, in the hospital or out.  We demand nutrition labels on our food and warning labels on our medications.  Why wouldn’t we want to know the effects of what we choose to feed our children for the first year of their life (or longer)?

This information isn’t meant to accuse certain women of ‘bad mothering’.  Obviously, every mother wants what is best for her child, and mothers make decisions based on the information available to them at the time.  Many doctors, nurses and hospitals all over the world will readily say “there’s nothing wrong with giving a bottle of formula”.  In the face of that ‘expertise’, how is a mother to know better?  Well, that is what information like this is for.

The vast majority of mothers should be able, with the right information and support, to provide 100% of the breast milk their child needs.  There will be a small number of mothers who, despite all effort, are unable to do so and may not be able to provide any breast milk at all.   Sadly, an overwhelming number of mothers feel they belong to this category when they actually do not.  They are the victims of poor information, an inadequate health care system, and lack of support.   Information campaigns such as these aren’t designed to pit mothers against each other, or to allow us to condemn others for their feeding choices.  This kind of information should instead act as motivation to seek more information and to make active decisions.

How does this kind of information make you feel? Will it change/would it have changed any of your feeding decisions? Do you feel this kind of information is important?  Leave a comment to share your thoughts!

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Author:

I'm a trained Pediatrician and Neonatologist and now stay-at-home mom. I am thankful for this opportunity to spend time with my kids. I am a co-founder of L.A.T.C.H. Philippines and devote a lot of my time to breastfeeding support and education. I am also very interested in child development and my children are the happy subjects of my home experiments.

12 thoughts on “The Benefits of Breastfeeding and the Dangers of Formula: Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. I think this is a nicely written piece and I do agree with it. Also, I believe that setting breastfeeding as the norm and comparing formula feeding to that is the right way to go. However, I think the most important bit is this: “They are the victims of poor information, an inadequate health care system, and lack of support.” Though it is of course great to get the breast-is-best point across, doing so without providing ample support and information on how to get a functioning breastfeeding relationship going and what is normal will only make mothers feel guilty and inadequate when they don’t manage. I feel we should put most of our energy into ensuring that support is readily available when a mother, perhaps persuaded by the message in the above posters, comes for help and reassurance.

    1. I absolutely agree with you. The ‘breast is best’ message has been embedded in most everyone’s consciousness but few really know how to address issues, deal with complications, or simply support a breastfeeding mother. Developing a culture of support based on correct information is really key!

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful assessment of this interesting dichotomy. It is valuable to have another educated person, and a health care professional at that, weigh in on the benefits of speaking as if breastfeeding were the cultural norm, just as it’s the biological norm. Again, thank you!

    1. I would like to think that the benefits that breastfeeding has to offer rightfully belong to every single child, and I hope that one day we can overcome the concept of exclusive breastfeeding as an impossible ideal. I would love to see the day when breastfeeding is so ‘normal’ that it no longer becomes a hot topic, and advocating for breastfeeding no longer becomes necessary.

  3. I am a first time parent and exclusively breastfed my son for his first year. Very lucky that thw hospital I gave birth in is a big supporter. With the help of mom too I founs out that malunggay helps increase your milk production but according to the information provided the more you breastfeed in a day the more milk you will produce. Now that my son is three I am very glad that I gave him the best gift a mother can give a good health to start his life. It’s a big sacrifice for mother but this is the greatest thing we can give our children.

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