If there’s one child-rearing issue that can instantly polarize a roomful of women, it’s breastfeeding. But it shouldn’t, because all moms want to do what's best for their babies. And both choices—breastfeeding or formula—can have pros and cons.

Pros of Breastfeeding

Numerous studies do suggest that breast-fed babies may be healthier than formula-fed kids, with lower rates of obesity, diabetes and ear infections, among other conditions. Evidence also suggests that children who were nursed often may have higher IQs than kids who drank formula.

There are health benefits for moms, too, including a lower risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Hence, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other health organizations recommend that women feed their babies breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life. The AAP also recommends that mothers continue to give their babies breast milk, along with other foods, for at least one year, and longer if desired.

Cons of Breastfeeding

Nursing a baby, however, requires a lot of energy, time, support and other resources that aren’t always available to new mothers. It can be especially difficult for mothers who return to work outside the home after three months—the average length of a maternity leave.

What's more, breastfeeding isn’t always easy, with a steep learning curve in the first six weeks. During that time new moms are still recovering from the physical ordeal of giving birth and dealing with sleep deprivation and spiking hormone levels. Moms are also dealing with the addition of a new and extremely demanding little person!

Most experts tell new moms to do their best and to feel good about their decision. “My advice about breastfeeding completely changed after I had children of my own,” says Melissa Meyer, M.D., a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, in Columbus, OH, and mom to a toddler and infant twins. “Now, while I still recommend that all women breastfeed if they’re able to, I tell new mothers they shouldn’t be made to feel like a failure if they aren’t able to stick with it."

Wendy Sue Swanson, M.D., a staff pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital and mother of two young children, says women face a lot of pressure to breastfeed exclusively. And she knows that personally. “When I wasn’t able to feed my children entirely with breast-milk, I suffered so much guilt. I had severe mastitis and was so ill I had to be hospitalized, and yet I was convinced that I had to continue to pump constantly in order to keep my supply up,” she says. “What I came to realize, and what I tell all new moms, is that every ounce of breast milk you can give your baby is beneficial, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving them a combination of formula and breast milk.” Choosing a combination of formula and breast milk “is particularly realistic for working mothers, who may not be able to pump enough on the job to satisfy their baby’s needs,” Dr. Swanson adds.

Newborn Feeding Tips

No matter what decisions you make about feeding your newborn, consider these strategies:

Pump your breast milk occasionally and have someone else offer it to your child in a bottle, so you can get a night out once in a while. Don’t wait longer than two or three months to start; your child won’t take the bottle as easily after that.

Attend a breastfeeding support group. You’ll get helpful advice and encouragement from lactation consultants and other new moms, and it's a great social outlet, too.

Replace one nursing session a day with formula to transition to a combination of breastfeeding and formula. Many couples choose an overnight formula feed, so Dad can give the bottle while Mom gets to sleep.

Build up a freezer stash of breast milk by pumping when Dad gives the formula bottle. While refrigerated breast milk is good for only about a week, breast milk can safely be frozen for up to three months in a regular freezer and six months in deep freeze.

Experiment with different bottles and nipples to see which ones your baby likes best. But don’t switch up too often; it may frustrate your child.

Warm bottles in a bowl of hot water, never in the microwave—no matter how tempting it is to save time.

Be aware: Babies who get less than 24 ounces of formula a day may need a vitamin D supplement. A mother’s milk typically doesn’t contain enough of this essential vitamin. Choose an OTC supplement without iron, which can cause constipation in an infant younger than 6 months.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 17 Sep 2010

Last Modified: 16 Dec 2011