Dear EarthTalk: What are the pros and cons of feeding babies formula versus breast milk? And if I purchase formula, should I spend the extra money on the organic variety?
—Suzy W., via e-mail
It is generally acknowledged within the medical community that breast milk is the ideal first food for babies, though modern formula brands can get the job done, too. Human breast milk naturally contains the vitamins and minerals a newborn requires. According to the website KidsHealth.org, breastfed infants have less difficulty with digestion than their formula-fed counterparts. And since breast milk is easily digested, breastfed babies have fewer incidences of diarrhea or constipation.
Also, researchers have found that infants fed with human breast milk have lower rates of hospital admissions, ear infections, diarrhea, rashes and allergies than bottle-fed babies. Meanwhile, a raft of studies suggest that infants who are fed breast milk may have lower incidences of asthma, diabetes, obesity and other health problems later on in life.
“Human milk is made for human infants, and it meets all their specific nutrient needs,” says Ruth Lawrence, M.D., spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics and professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York. “We’ve known for years that the death rates in Third World countries are lower among breast-fed babies,” she adds. “Breast-fed babies are healthier and have fewer infections than formula-fed babies.”
Another related upside to breast milk is cost savings—both for families and the larger health care system. Mothers who can’t or choose not to breast feed end up spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars per year on formula, and higher incidences of illness and disease down the road means higher costs for all.
One concern with breast feeding is that toxins present in mom’s bloodstream can make their way into baby. But a 2007 study by Ohio State and Johns Hopkins University researchers found that levels of chemicals in breast milk were far below U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum acceptable levels for even drinking water, and that indoor air in typical American homes contains as much as 135 times as many contaminants as mother’s milk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control maintains that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any chemical exposure risks. “To date, effects on the nursing infant have been seen only where the mother herself was clinically ill from a toxic exposure,” reports the agency.
Of course, not all mothers are able to breastfeed, and in such cases formula can be a healthy alternative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates all baby formulas to ensure purity and that they meet nutritional requirements. Parents should know, however, that they may not be avoiding chemical exposure by opting for formula. Non-organic formula can contain the same or higher amounts of chemical residues left over from its raw materials. One way around this is to buy organic formula. Leading makers include Nature’s One, Earth’s Best and Bright Beginnings. Enfamil and Similac also now offer organic varieties.
CONTACTS: Kids Health, www.kidshealth.org; American Academy of Pediatrics, www.aap.org; U.S. Food and Drug Administration, www.fda.gov; Consumer Reports, www.consumerreports.org.
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