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Is Formula Ever “Better” Than Breastfeeding?

admin April 4, 2013

First — please take note.  I am not writing this to insult formula-feeding mothers.  This isn’t a debate about what is “best” for any individual mother or child.  There are a lot of social and emotional factors that go into making the decision on how to feed your baby as well.  This post is intended to address the issue from a nutritional standpoint and as a response to the controversy stirred up recently by the Weston A. Price Foundation’s stance on breastfeeding.

Recently, the Village Green Network sponsored the “Healthy Living Summit.”  One of the most controversial talks to come out of this series of podcasts was a talk by Sarah Pope, The Healthy Home Economist, on breastfeeding.  She, and the Weston A. Price Foundation have officially recommended that breastfeeding is optimal only if the mom is well-nourished.  Otherwise, donor milk or even formula are preferred.  Here is their official statement:

WAP breastfeeding

This was originally posted to the Debunked Facebook page.

Many mothers have taken great offense to the idea that formula, whether commercial or homemade, could ever be better than breastfeeding.  Sally Fallon Morell claims to have scientific evidence to support this recommendation.  But what does the evidence really say?

The Recommendation to Breastfeed…Or Not

What is this recommendation based on?

Without having read Morell’s new book, I am just guessing, but it appears that the recommendation is based on possible micronutrient content of breastmilk.  For example, vegan diets can easily be deficient in vitamin B-12 and A, which are two critical nutrients for growth and development.  If the mothers are seriously deficient, then their breastmilk will be as well (especially if they are long-term vegans with little to no stores left in their bodies).

This seems to be WAP’s concern.  But, is this concern in and of itself founded?

A study of moms who fast during Ramadan showed that certain nutrients were affected by their restricted diet.  Zinc, magnesium, and potassium decreased significantly during the period of fasting.  And the researchers did recommend for optimal nutrition for both mom and baby, that lactating mothers be excused from fasting.

Another study shows that iron, zinc, and copper levels in mother’s milk are not affected by nutritional status.  So, not all nutrients are affected by nutritional status.

Yet another study shows important omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, were higher in vegans than omnivorous mothers  (B12, also critical, was lower in vegan mothers).  On the other hand, this study showed that DHA levels were significantly lower in vegan mothers as compared to omnivorous (less than half).  Essential fatty acids are critical to infant’s development, so this is important.  Since DHA and other omega-3s were associated with a lower risk of allergy and asthma, this is important.

Still another study shows that despite no differences in diet, a group of mothers consisting of three different ethnicities showed marked differences in fatty acid composition of breastmilk, suggesting that there is more than just diet that plays a role in milk composition.

So what we know is that the composition of breastmilk varies from mother to mother for many reasons, diet being only one of them.  We also know that the diet of different women may be vastly different despite how it is labeled.  An omnivorous mother could eat lots of veggies, whole grains, pastured meats, etc. or she could eat largely processed foods with few veggies.  The same goes for a vegetarian or vegan mother, minus the meat (i.e. whole grains, nuts, seeds, coconut oil vs. refined grains).

A processed diet is not optimal regardless of what it contains and the mother’s health can suffer — we know this.  It is also possible that certain diets are not exactly optimal for baby, either — as shown by the fact that some breastmilk from vegan mothers is low on essential fatty acids and B12.  And this does matter.

But…should this be the primary consideration?  If we are looking at only nutrient content, we might be able to cherry-pick data and make the same recommendations that WAPF made.  Breastfeeding, however, is more than just nutrients.

The Importance of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has so many other benefits besides simply essential nutrients.  These benefits come from both additional characteristics in the milk itself, and the actual act of breastfeeding.

Breastmilk itself contains immunities that are crucial to a baby’s immune system development.  This includes important IgA and TGF-alpha (immunoglobin A and Transforming Growth Factor alpha, respectively).   IgA protects the immature, open gut from allowing proteins to leak into the blood (possibly leading to allergy development) and helps the gut to mature.  It also helps to protect the baby from infections.

Breastmilk contains probiotics, which influence the immune system as well.  New research shows it contains over 700 different species of probiotics!  (And by the way, this study shows that using probiotics rather than antibiotics is a more effective treatment for mastitis.)  Breastmilk also contains stem cells!

Breastmilk even contains RNA, or genetic material.  This is one of the first studies to suggest that humans share genetic material in a method other than sexual reproduction.  Researchers don’t yet know the full significance of the presence of RNA in breastmilk, but it is thought to play a role in the development of the immune system.  Newer research suggests they play a “critical role” in the development of the immune system.

Interestingly, fresh breastmilk (ideally directly from the breast) is best.  Thawed breastmilk led to more stress responses in preterm infants than did fresh breastmilk.  Preterm infants given donated breastmilk (which is pasteurized) had lower levels of inflammation and cholesterol as teens than did formula-fed babies.   In another study, though, infants given donated (pasteurized) milk or preterm formula did not show a significant difference, while those fed their own mother’s milk did better.  These were severely premature infants (less than 30 weeks’ gestation).

Breastmilk contains 50% of its fat as saturated fat, suggesting that higher levels of saturated fat are beneficial and necessary for growth and development.

Besides these benefits to the immune system and development, breastfeeding has many other benefits.

Breastfeeding — the act of, not the milk itself — reduces an infant’s pain response.  Of course, it promotes bonding between mother and baby and may help the mom to get more sleep.

Is Formula Ever Better Than Breastfeeding?

The Bottom Line on Recommendations

There’s a lot of research that still hasn’t been done.  We don’t know how, exactly, the nutrient content of breastmilk varies from mother to mother, both based on diet and other factors (like ethnicity or health status), or even how it varies from day to day or month to month in the same mother. Since we don’t have solid data on this, we can’t logically conclude that a particular, specific diet is “best” for all mothers or that it produces superior breastmilk.

We can conclude that breastmilk is better than formula because of its many constituents that formula lacks — and that’s only including the ones we know about.  The 700 strains of probiotics were only mapped in early January of this year!  A few short years ago, we didn’t know that breastmilk contained any probiotics at all.  It’s only been in recent years that we’ve discovered the stem cells and RNA in breastmilk as well.

We don’t know yet what else we will find in breastmilk, but it’s far more than “food” for infants.  It is a living fluid that helps them to grow and develop optimally.

What we also know, however, is that diet does appear to have some influence on the nutrient content.  Mothers who consume foods high in omega-3s or who supplement with them tend to have greater levels of these beneficial fatty acids in their milk.  Mothers who take probiotic supplements tend to have greater levels of probiotics (not always the same strains as they are taking) than mothers who don’t.

It’s also important to note that despite what some say, the amount of fat in breastmilk is highly variable, and is likely at least partially related to diet.

Formula should never be recommended over breastmilk, regardless of the diet of the woman (this is for general recommendations — not specific, individual situations).  There are too many constituents and benefits of breastmilk that cannot be matched in formula, no matter how healthy the formula is.  Good formula options should exist for those who cannot or choose not to breastfeed, but formula should not be considered “superior” nutritionally.

However.

We need to be able to have a conversation about how diet impacts breastmilk and that while a “special diet” is by no means required, women should take care to nourish themselves as well as possible during pregnancy and breastfeeding.  A perfect diet isn’t needed or even realistic.  The fact remains that diet does impact the nutrient quality of breastmilk cannot be ignored or avoided in order to avoid women feeling like they can’t “meet the requirements” to breastfeed.

The perfect diet is not a requirement to breastfeed.  Women who “fail” to eat a nourishing diet can still breastfeed and it will still be the best option for most.

Women will feel better (since breastfeeding will pull from their own nutrient stores) and their milk will be positively impacted if they eat a healthy diet.

Salmon, greens, pastured meats, and eggs, grass-fed butter — these foods will nourish women (and babies) better than donuts, fries, and frozen dinners.  But since breastmilk contains so much more than “just” nutrients, breastmilk will be superior to formula on either diet.  (But please don’t live on donuts and fries!)

That’s the bottom line — yes, maternal nutrition impacts breastmilk.  No, maternal nutrition (excellent or abysmal) does not mean that formula is ever the “overall” better option.  (And yes formula might be better for individual women, but not for a sweeping recommendation.)

My order of recommendations:

  • Breastmilk directly from the mom
  • Expressed milk from the mom
  • Donor breastmilk direct mom-to-mom (unpasteurized)
  • Milk bank breastmilk (pasteurized)
  • Homemade formula
  • Commercial formula

What do you think about this controversy?

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64 Comments

  1. I tend to agree with you – I loved your article! But when I think of the case below I´m not so certain… http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/29/vegans-trial-death-baby-breast-milk
    Don´t you think this baby would be alive if he was formula fed? I know this is an extreme case, but still… the baby died!

    Reply

    • I would agree that that mother, in particular, probably should have been formula-feeding. She, personally, was not well-nourished enough to feed her baby. I don’t think that changes the overarching recommendations, but instead serves as a caution that individual mothers need to evaluate the right decision for themselves very carefully. Vegans might consider that they could need supplements to have adequate nutrition to breastfeed. There was also a case of a vegan couple on trial because they fed their baby soy milk and apple juice — breastmilk likely would’ve been better in that case! (Then again it is *never* appropriate to feed a baby plain soy milk — not formula, but the milk intended for adult consumption — and JUICE as an infant!)

      Reply

    • This case is unique due to the fact that the baby was 11 months old and ONLY consuming her malnourished mother’s breastmilk. And the fact is, we don’t really know how much milk they were giving her or what else was going on in that home. You can”t use one sensationalized case to make a point, no matter how compelling.

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    • In that article the child actually died of pneumonia like symptoms. Yes, she was underweight and vitamin deficient, but the article doesn’t tell us by how much. How many children are vitamin deficient in one area or another? She was deficient in b-12 and a, b-12 isn’t stored in the fat cells, so if the mothers diet had been low in those vitamins the past few days, so would her levels. It’s also hard to believe that a vegan would be vit-a deficient since so many fruits, veggies, herbs, spices, etc contain high levels of vit a. It could have been a problem with malabsorption, or any number of other things. Or perhaps, she was tiny. Many healthy children/babies I know who have excellent nutrition are completely off of the weight charts. My own daughter is only in the 7th percentile for weight. If this article were about her, even though she’s healthy, they could easily say “she should have weighed XXX” when the reality was she was smaller than some, but still healthy.

      The loss of a child is tragic and horrible, and if this baby drinking formula would have helped then that makes this all the more tragic. But based on the very limited information that the article gave I’m not even close to being convinced that the fact that the mother was a vegan breast-feeding mother had anything to do with her passing away.

      As for the general message of your post, I agree completely. Every situation is unique, but the overwhelming majority of babies would be better off being breastfed than formula-fed. What about countries like Africa where the diet is limited and the area known for poor nutrition? Remember that picture years back of the one healthy twin (bf) and the emaciated twin (ff)? They were in Africa, and obviously the mother’s poor nutrition affected her breastmilk less than the formula harmed her other baby.

      Reply

    • There is nothing wrong with breastmilk from a vegan mother; there are many societies that eschew animal products and don’t use formula! Yes, b12 is an issue – but then many non-veggies are deficient too. But that isn’t a problem with breastfeeding, it’s the parents not being informed. “they treated her with cabbage poultices, mustard and camphor”…good grief. Camphor is carcinogenic, I believe? Breastmilk IS designed (and optimal) to be the main food for the first year. My two (vegan) children started solids around 9 months but ate very little until about 13 months. They were big and healthy throughout, and still are (age 10 & 6). We informed ourselves well, and already had many years of experience with our diet and lifestyle. These parents were (a) foolish not to act when things were clearly not going well, and (b) badly informed and supported (most people don’t react well to accusations & direct orders rather than collaboration & skilled help). I’m sure they are devastated by what happened, and hope that it will have been the wake-up call that many parents need. Being vegan is very healthy…but there are many variations on the diet (you can live on veggie burgers but wouldn’t do so well, just like with the meat version). These people were probably on a very limited diet.

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      • Hi! I am also a vegan mother who breastfed, and my now 15 month old is very healthy! She was during her 13 months of breastfeeding as well. There was no way she would have been better off on formula. I did take a multi-vitamin that had extra B12, and I was checked several times during pregnancy, and my levels were fine. My daughter had her blood work done at 12 months and all her levels were normal too (she is also only eating and drinking vegan food items). I absolutely hate that one article where the malnournished child died and they blame it on the mother being vegan, insteas of realizing that the mother just did not eat correctly!

        Reply

      • Responding here as a mother who eats animal products but also who due to inadequate Dr care (not due to lack of my attempt to get help) was severely B12 deficient & did not know it. It actually was caused by hyper emesis. It is easily treated though. My daughter was also born severely deficient as a result & it took my own stores a bit to replenish, but rather than treat her, they treated me & her levels all came up to where they should be. I am not entirely familiar with Weston A Price, but somewhat familiar & until today was unaware of this ridiculous recommendation. It seriously makes my head hurt a little.

        Obviously optimal health is ideal. Optimal nutrition is ideal. But to then make a leap to say you must be in optimal health with optimal nutrition in order to feed your infants your own milk is neither helpful nor scientifically sound, and it just unreasonable. A mother who cares enough to put alllll the work into a Weston A Price formula recipe is already going to be invested enough in food to feed herself. The rest will just ignore such a recommensation anyway.

        I have nothing against homemade formula. I was raised on it. I do have a serious issue with ever saying it is preferable because mom’s diet isn’t good enough. Other than in rare rare cases that isn’t what actual milk analyzing shows. With all the other silly myths & pressures & “am I doing this right’ and is my baby crying over something i ate, or is the poop color okay, the last thing anyone needs is one more thing making mom’s question their ability to care for & raise their own babies. And the availability of donor milk is very limited & I am not sure how great it would go over trying to find a mother, willing to donate & then asking if she follows the Weston A Price nutritional guidelines. Good luck with that one. Then you can try to explain that while you make enough milk yourself, you prefer to use hers because your diet isn’t up to their standards. Bahahahaha

        I have managed to nurse 3 super healthy kiddos despite having an imperfect life with imperfect nutrition. And when I say healthy, I mean never needed a sick visit or a medication for nearly a decade – not for the 3 kids or either parent. I think we are surviving just fine. We get super mild stuff here & there, but nothing I would even call sick or worth staying home for mostly. I could count on one hand how many times each kid has even run a fever. You don’t need to be perfect or live totally clean to have good health. You need to pay attention to basic nutritional needs, meet those & throw in some good vitamins & supplements that boost immunity & there is no need to obsess. I am all for avoiding toxins & being mindful, but there is a point at which the advice switches from useful to detrimental & I think that point is met when recommended homemade formula for someone who eats processed foods. It’s ludicrous to me really. I couldn’t even say that someone with a straight face.

        Even my near non existent B12 levels did no serious harm. It meant my baby slept a ton & grew slow for a few weeks. That is all. Once it caught up & she caught up, it’s over. No long term harm & there is only 1 thing that could have been done ahead which could have been earlier diagnosis & injections. I wish they would have done that…as B12 deficiency can cause hyper emesis I now know & might have been a loop I got stuck in, but at least there is no long term harm from it. And man did my energy improve once that was back on track. amazing what good vitamin levels can do for you.

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    • I had a bad experience trying to breastfeed my twins 15 years ago. They could not latch on. I tried for 6 weeks. After being poked and prodded at the hospital and sleep centre, I quit trying. Expressing for 2 made me so tired and depressed I was pretty much in a VERY bad place. I also was brought up to be quite conservative and I was so embarrased at being touched and people trying to help by pulling my nipples etc etc. I still feel ill at the memory. I also hated the thought of breastfeeding in front of anyone at all. Seeing someone breastfeeding makes me uncomfortable. I know its nuts. I know I must have a “prudish” problem. I know people will think I am an idiot, and I know breastfeeding is the greatest natural gift for a baby, but I couldnt do it. I was so scared even if I did get the babies to latch on someone would walk in and see me breastfeeding. Its nuts I know and I hate that I feel that way. Years later my twins are 15. I also have a 2 yr old and a 1 yr old. Both on formula since birth. I didnt know how much I was affected until my now 2 year old was born, I just freaked out and told hubby to rush out and grab a tin of formula at the hospital. Its only the last 6 months or so that I have been looking into more natural foods and alternatives and ive realised how bad formula is. So even though my whole world is my children, reading articles like this make me feel like a selfish loser mum that doesn’t deserve kids. I guess I am. Its not because the article is wrong. Its because the article is right and true. And because I cannot change what I have done. New mummies take note:)

      Reply

      • Oh momma forgive yourself. My mom never nursed me & she could have. She chose not to because she tried it with her 1st & found that my dad was no help & she felt overwhelmed trying to do it all on her own with a baby that was camped out nursing all day. So she switched & never tried it again. And you know what? It is what it is. Water under the bridge & I would no more want you to beat yourself up than for her to beat herself up.

        What you can do now is your best to impress in your children an acceptance & appreciation of breastfeeding. So that one day, when they are parents, they won’t find it has difficult or awkward as you did. My mom was able to at least give me that and so can you. And you can, like you are here, encourage others to at least give it a try. That is all anyone can ask. Our lives are made up of a million choices & what we know continues to change & sometimes we will look back wishing we knew something or that we chose differently, but there isn’t much sense looking back too mcsc momma – that isn’t the direction you are headed. 🙂

        Reply

  2. Kate, thank you so much for this post. I feel like it addresses the importance of a healthy lifestyle without condemning any mother for her choices… Perhaps this post will encourage more moms to breastfeed despite their circumstances, and even more to take care of their own diet, via supplement if not in food. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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  3. THANK YOU for writing this!! I was SO disappointed in Sarah’s presentation and in the WAPF stance in general. It’s way off base, and further more, it may discourage moms from breastfeeding, if they’re worried that their diet isn’t “good enough”. We need to be ENCOURAGING BREASTFEEDING, not furthering to undermine women’s confidence in themselves & their bodies. I agree that homemade formula is waaay healthier than canned formula, but to put it above breastmilk – any breastmilk – is absurd. Moms who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed should be encouraged to seek donor milk or given resources abotu homemade formula. But causing moms to doubt the value of their own breastmilk is irresponsible. Sarah and the Healthy Home Economist & the WAPF need to seriously reexamine their position on this. Your order of recommendation is right on. Thanks for the well-written, informative article. I will be sharing it!

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  4. Great post. I agree w/ you 100%. Thanks. I hope we can all talk civilly about this. I don’t like the mud slinging…but I do think the language coming from WAPF is not optimal on breastfeeding, and that it is even problematic. Sharing on FB right now with my fans.

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  5. Well said, Kate! I whole-heartedly agree!

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  6. First off, Nathan is adorable! Secondly, great informational post that included a lot of research… a lot of info that people need to read! Thank you!

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  7. I am of your opinion and am very pleased to see the research you put into this article. I was a little concerned when i saw the recommendations. I never would have thought any organization would actually recommend commercial formula over breast milk. Thank for the well written article.

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  8. THANK YOU! THANK YOU!! I breastfed both of my babies and am VERY PROUD of the fact that I did. It wasn’t always easy (soreness, bleeding, etc) but I perservered because I believed (and still do) that it was best for my girls. I agree with your recommendations especially noting that individual needs may not correspong to those in in the majority.

    I was mortified (and then outraged) when told that even though I am doing all I can, to do the best I can for my daughters that it wasn’t good enough! That commercial formula was better!!!! REALLY?!? (I eat mostly organic, the occasional candy bar, organic milk not raw, pastured eggs but not pastured meat from my local farmer exclusively,…you get the idea).

    I appreciate that you took a supportive, informational, and educational perspective without the scathing judgments.

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  9. Good, straight forward writing. I appreciate facts and objective information over emotionally driven opinions (even if there is merit).

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  10. I wholeheartedly agree that breastmilk is best, however, please keep in mind that sometimes there are extenuating circumstances (both of my children had allergies to breastmilk AND most formulas). I couldn’t tell you how many times I was insulted for not breastfeeding. Pediatricians, nurses, friends, even total strangers made disparaging comments everytime I whipped out a bottle. After explaining myself over and over again, I finally cracked and told one unsuspecting stranger that I didn’t remember her being present during conception. =)
    So yes, breast is best, but please don’t judge the mom who doesn’t choose that route. It might be a life or death decision.

    Reply

    • Not judging at all. I clearly stated several times that this is about over all recommendations and that there are definitely individual cases where formula may be the better (or only) option for some moms.

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    • CW
      I just wanted to say that I understand where you are coming from. My son was so allergic to casein, that the casein in breastmilk made him bleed(even with me off of dairy). I tried several formulas and finally had no choice but to put him on Neocate. I cried for 2 weeks everytime I fed him because I wanted to breastfeed for longer so badly. I did get in about 5 months before I had to stop because he would cry when he fed and then I would find blood in his diaper. I breastfed my daughter for right at 20 months because I knew how important it was and because of her allergies. We do what we have to do and pray for the best for our precious ones.

      Reply

      • Linda, I just wanted to comment as my daughter (who is now 4) had the same thing. She was crying in pain and just two weeks old, had blood in her stool and vomit tinted with blood. It was scary, we ended up at Children’s Hospital of Boston and a couple of days later they finally told us it is a milk protein allergy (that’s after we were at another hospital where they said they would operate on our 2 week old and we left to get a second opinion). I stopped eating all dairy and pumped/dumped for 5 days while she was on Similac Alimentum and went back to breastfeeding (thanks to the support of my husband and all the hospital staff). I mean I had to cut our ALL dairy, I would either eat just whole foods or read all product labels since many contain dairy derivatives. When she was one year old I started slowly introducing dairy into my own diet, only yogurt and cheese, and she tolerated it well. I breastfed until she was 24 months. Now at 4 years old she loves dairy, she could eat grass fed butter by the spoonfuls! I don’t mean to say “You could have breastfed”, I just want other moms reading this to know that it is possible to breastfeed a baby diagnosed with milk protein intolerance and that for most infants it will eventually be outgrown when their stomach and digestive system matures. How is your son doing now? Your daughter didn’t have any similar symptoms? My second baby was totally fine, they are so different.

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  11. The final order is probably correct, although I have questions about the differences in homemade and commercial artificial baby milks. The artificial baby milk companies have spent bajillions of dollars trying to make their products more like breastmilk. A mother making a homemade formula will not have day-in and day-out access to all of the ingredients she would need to make an adequate substitute.

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    • You might want to read this post: https://modernalternativemama.com/2010/4/16/artificial-baby-milk-whats-in-it/ I don’t trust the formulas that are primarily based on corn and soy and which lack cholesterol. I think if you cannot breastfeed, homemade formula from a tried-and-true recipe is your best bet. And remember, babies in the 50s were raised on condensed milk and Karo syrup, and they all lived to tell…NOT that I’d ever recommend that! but if you are using a known recipe I think baby will thrive even if it’s not “perfect.” And it certainly won’t be as highly processed.

      Reply

      • My grandmother fed my mom and her siblings like this – three of them ended up severely asthmatic. Definitely NOT recommended! There has been good research into the recipes for homemade formulas now, though.

        I have breastfed my son for nearly 13 months now. Your article is excellent. Yes, it’s important for mom to eat well, but there can be so many challenges when beginning breastfeeding (my son had trouble latching due to an undiagnosed tongue-tie) that moms don’t need to feel like they are inadequate because they sometimes eat a piece of cake, or don’t manage to eat liver 3x a week. I was a fan of WAPF, but I found this very disturbing and I have stepped back a bit from endorsing their site.

        Reply

    • Linda, the “homemade” formulas are based on science and aren’t made up by the mother but rather are recipes created by the WAPF. The formula companies have spent bajillions of dollars on MARKETING and since they want to appeal to the masses, they don’t include cholesterol, which has been villainized and is not fashionable. However, it is very important for babies. Also, soy has been glorified but it is actually extremely harmful for babies, so no, the formula companies don’t have the consumer’s best interests at heart, but instead, they have their pockets in mind.

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    • Linda, I am raising my infant grandson and I make him homemade formula just about every day. I milk my own cow or get fresh milk from another friend who milks her own cows. I order the other ingredients and keep them in stock so I never run out. Just some of the other ingredients are: fermented CLO, probiotics, cold pressed sunflower oil, EVOO, coconut oil, gelatin (to make the cow’s milk protein more digestible), and….you get the idea. Starting with good quality RAW milk is essential and what I believe makes it such a good choice when quality breast milk is not available. Commercial formula, on the other hand, is a very processed food devoid of the life inherent in the homemade formula.

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  12. Great Informative post, Kate! Thank you!

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  13. I agree wholeheartedly with your article and recommendations. I have bf 8 children who now range in age from 23yo down to almost 4yo. I believe that bfing is almost always better than bottlefeeding (except in individual cases,) and that most of us don’t have perfect nutrition, so supplementation of mom and/or baby is probably a good idea.

    There are lots of other benefits to bfing that come from the very process of doing so, ie. the bonding experience which is valid for bottlefeeding moms, but is definitely different for bfing moms, and also there are health benefits for mom as well. Those who bf are less likely to have breast cancer as well as other female issues… and it can help some moms lose pregnancy weight faster.

    No matter what the method of feeding is, it is good for us all to always remember the true goal is to feed the baby… Many women want to bf, but it doesn’t work out for them. If they are feeding their baby formula, even if they know it isn’t optimum (and most do know) then they are still good moms… the only bad moms (in terms of feeding) are those who neglect their babies completely and aren’t feeding them. Also, young moms need to realize that things needn’t be all or nothing… occasionally feeding formula is not a bad thing… every mom needs to do what she must do to parent her child to the best of her ability.

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  14. Thank you so much for writing this! You’ve written my thoughts exactly. I’ve been reading the arguments and WAPF supporters never seem mentions the importance of breast milk on the immune system as well as the physical bonding. I hope your article reaches many women.

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  15. Just wanted to say thanks for making this informational and non-judgemental! I too have been criticized and given the guilt trips for not fully BF my babies. And I do agree that at least 95% of the time breastMILK is best, but in my career I see a LOT of extenuating circumstances where it is in the best interest of the baby to NOT use mom’s milk. Thanks again!

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  16. Well done Katie. Really appreciate your post and as always, how well you source your information and reply to people’s comments. Thanks for always providing such quality content for us to share with others!

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  17. I appreciate you writing this. I am a breast feeding mom that does not eat any meat except for fish and I am feeding a thriving, chunky 6 month old. I am also able to donate, the mom I give to comments on the cream top layer on the milk- quite a compliment I must say! I do take several vitamins including B-12 and I did this before I even got pregnant to have myself be healthy. I know I do not have an “optimal” diet by many people’s standards and I feel like I need to justify my choices. I am happy you recognized that “not optimal” is still good. 🙂

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  18. Thank you for this article. I totally agree with you!

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  19. Very well-researched and written, Kate, thank you!!!

    I just saw this today, about how much we don’t even understand YET about the makeup of breastmilk and how it changes all the time based on the baby and the mother, and I couldn’t help but think of the WAPF stance…which seems even more short-sighted after reading this new research:
    http://www.slate.com/blogs/how_babies_work/2013/03/20/the_science_of_breast_milk_latest_research_on_nursing_and_milk_vs_formula.html

    🙂 Katie

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  20. Thank you. I heard Sarah Pope speak on the subject at the summit. I was really disappointed. Breast is best or nature would have designed formula coming from the breast. I remember reading on KellyMom.com a couple years ago that even a mother addicted to crack should continue to nurse her baby while getting clean. That made it clear to me.
    I don’t believe that those with a powerful voice should EVER suggest such a thing. How to improve mother’s milk , but never speak against it. Sends the wrong message.

    Reply

    • A mother addicted to crack should NOT breastfeed her baby. She is feeding her baby the crack!!! I am raising a grandson whose mother is addicted to pain pills and the baby had to go through detox to get off of it. If he had breastfed, he would have continued to receive the pain meds.

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  21. Eureka! I’m very happy to see someone in the WAP community step out on this issue!!! I was so disgusted when I read this. It has really put off a lot of people, which is a shame, but I can’t really blame them. WAPF tends to cherry pick, at best, or stick their head in the sand, at worst, when it comes to modern research-you can’t shun everything post Dr. Price! I agree that it’s not cut and dry (but really, what is?) but I do think the current research sends a clear message that breastfeeding is the best option in the overwhelming majority of cases. Kate, I think your order of things is spot on. I think you’ve touched on really important points and I wish WAPF factored them into their equation before taking such a controversial stance. I truly hope that saner heads prevail and they reconsider their position!

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  22. I just wanted to say that I really, REALLY appreciate how you managed to discuss the superiority of breastfeeding without disparaging formula feeding moms…although I’m one of those people who absolutely detests breastfeeding, I’ve started each one of my kids out on breastmilk because there really is no debate on how nutritionally, it is just way better than formula. For one reason or another, I ended up formula feeding them but it always bothered me that they were missing out on all the benefits (even as I rejoiced to not be a milk factory anymore!)

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  23. Excellent article!

    If the basis for breastfeeding for infant health were mother’s diet value alone, then peoples living in countries with fewer varieties or even lack of foods would have children who are handicapped in development due to lack of nutrients in the breastmilk. But a mother breastfeeding is THE form of infant feeding, universally, in all mammals, since the beginning of mammals. That includes us. How can we match that system?

    In pre-Islamic Arabia, women in large cities such as Mekka (lot of tourism, major city) would breastfeed their own children for a few months, and then they would hire a bedouin wetnurse to continue the breastfeeding of the child until the child was weaned. This was because bedouin women lived outside of the city, away from the toxic environment caused by tourist traffic. It was not uncommon for one child to be nurse by more than 5 women. The Arabs were very keen on this because they attributed good health and immunity to diseases to a variations in the breastmilk.

    Also, in Islamic law, if a child has been breastfed to satiety a certain number of times by a woman other than his mother, then any children that the woman has are considered “milk-siblings”. The common bond of having drank from the same milk source during infancy makes each child literally related so they are not allowed to marry. They are considered “mahrams”, or those who are not allowed to be married by the individual. So for example, if my little nine month old girl were to regularly suckle from my friend who has a boy, they would be considered siblings by Islamic law. But if my son, who has not suckled from her, wished to marry her daughter (who did not suckled from me)…that would be fine. There is no milk-siblinghood going on.

    I just wanted to put that in there (though it is a bit off topic) because whether science knows it yet or not, religions and even some cultures knew the intimate nature of breast milk and its consumption had far reaching social consequences. I think there is genetic material passed through breastmilk that definitely has an effect on the child consuming it and the relationships he/she fors with those who share that material.

    Also, with regards to fasting Ramadan and the like…there are concessions if a woman or her baby is going to suffer harm from her fasting. I think the question is not if she is fasting, but what she is eating during the time she breaks her fast. Muslims are encouraged to follow the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)by eating the pre-dawn meal and breaking the fast with dates and milk. Dates are like little multi-vitamins, high in magnesium, folic acid, potassium, sugars…all the good stuff that you would need.

    Stress, caffiene consumption and the presence of meds …no matter how awesome your diet is, WILL have an impact on the quality of your breastmilk. But womens bodies are self-sacrificing…the woman loses her stores before the body stops giving to the baby.

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  24. It’s simply absurd to claim that if a mom is not well enough nourished she should do the homemade formula. As if they would know it and as if they would actually do it! Ridiculous!

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  25. Very nice article. I appreciate the delineation between overall recommendations vs recommendations made for specific people.

    Where is the evidence that the homemade formula is safe, and nutritionally superior to commercially made formula? I am skeptical of that claim.

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  26. Thank you! I have been slowly studying to be a lactation consultant and was quite shocked about how the Village Green Network’s interview undermined breastfeeding. I have read many articles about how babies are dying worldwide because their mothers do not breastfeed them. Women need to be encouraged and empowered to breastfeed. Providing information and encouragement to eat a healthy and maybe even optimum diet is a great part of helping women to breastfeed but should never be used as a way to encourage them not to breastfeed!

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  27. This is great. Thank you. Even more benefits of breast feeding include better eye coordination, better motor skills, and increased head/neck strength (as could be reasonably expected).

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  28. HOW exactly does this “not” disparage formula feeding? I didn’t read a single syllable of encouragement or reassurance to me. I formula fed because I could not produce milk. Milk sharing clubs, wet nurses, and milk banks are not a thing that were ever mentioned to me as options. Homemade formula seems irresponsible – not any better than carnation and Karo. So, yeah, I went with the expensive brand name. I really dont feel like it was a “last resort.” I know moms who smoke, drink, live on fast food, and/or take Rx meds for whose children I’m glad they never considered Breastfeeding.

    Reply

    • This is about overall recommendations and not specific mothers. That was made clear throughout and I stated there should be safe and healthy formula options for those who need them.

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    • Cheryll, Clearly you have never seen the recipe for homemade formula. Commercial formula can’t compare nutritionally.

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  29. I really enjoyed your article and it brought to mind a funny memory from a couple years ago. A good friend and I both had infants around the same age and for some reason (I can’t remember now) we both had bottles of expressed breastmilk in the fridge. My friend’s babies are always super round, chunky and oh so cute and my babies tend to be more “average” in weight. When we took a look in the fridge at the breastmilk that had started to separate (cream rising to the top) mine was about 90% watery milk and 10% cream and my friend’s was about 75% cream and only 25% watery milk. No wonder her babies were so chunky! We eat a very similar diet so the only conclusion we could come to was basically that is the way that God designed us. 🙂

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  30. A couple scenarios/points not addressed here. Firstly, if so many mothers had different amounts of micronutrients in their breastmilk, then it goes to show that different babies may have different needs and one mothers milk may not be right for another mother’s baby. Secondly, I have known many mothers who breastfeed and their (young) babies have serious dental decay (even baby root canals!!) while I have never seen or heard of a baby on the raw milk formula have this issue. Just an observation. Lastly, soooo many mothers (myself included) have poor digestion that results in their baby developing eczema. Some will/can not change their diet. If they kept breastfeeding, the baby would constantly be suffering from the inability to digest the undigested allergens in the mother’s milk. Pasteurized donors milk could contain any number of allergens and would lack probiotics found in raw milk. I would definitely choose raw milk formula over pasteurized donor milk.

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  31. Wonderful post! Absolutely agree about the diet and breastfeeding correlation.

    On a semi-related note. I wonder, because you have such a wide influence, if the language of breastfeeding and formula feeding could be enhanced to be more scientifically accurate. If we study the effects of a medication on the human body, we state that the average human body is the norm, while medications have negative side effects. We do not say that the normal human body is “giving benefits,” but it is in a healthy, *normal* state. We don’t state that a medication is the average, we speak of it in terms of benefits to a less than average body and its harmful side effects.
    Breastfeeding is the biological norm. I.e. it’s not “best,” it’s normal and healthy. It doesn’t offer better intelligence, it offers normal intelligence. It doesn’t offer better health in long and short term, it offers the norm. It doesn’t offer the “benefit” of attachment hormones, it is the biological norm. Scientifically speaking, formula (including the WAPF formula) offers reduced intelligence, health, bonding hormones, etcetera, when compared to breastfeeding.
    That’s not an emotional statement, but one founded in the same way studies on medications are supposed to be stated.
    I believe being honest about the topic, direct, scientific, caring will help change the mindset, more often, about breastfeeding than a discussion of diet (though it, too, is a good discussion).
    Anyway, I hope that I can say this without a feeling of judgement on anyone’s part. I have none. I gave my first babe formula for the last 6 months. I deeply regret it, but don’t feel judged when others state truth about formula.

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  32. I’m sitting here trying to find the right words to articulate why this article, and this topic in general, irk me so much. It’s not that I disagree, per se. It’s more that of all the causes out there worth championing, breastfeeding over formula-feeding hardly seems worthy. It’s almost (how to put this)…elitist. As long as you’re doing the best you can for your child, who cares?? I don’t need a scientific study to tell me that breastfeeding is optimal, and I also don’t need an exclusive breastfeeder to condescend to me with words of comfort about my decision / need to formula-feed. Any thinking woman (that’s your audience here) already knows that breastfeeding is healthier, meaning that in those instances where a woman chooses (CHOOSES — not needs) to formula-feed, she’s probably past the point of being swayed by the “revelation” that breastfeeding is healthier. That a mother needs to nourish herself properly to produce well-balanced breast milk is hardly revolutionary. The WAPF’s point is obvious, as is this author’s perspective. So why is this a controversy? How about we champion a real cause? Like adoption? Here’s something to feel guilty about. While we are off having three or five or eight kids of our own, patting ourselves on the back along the way for all that great breastfeeding we did, self-indulging in our stellar homebirthing and homeschooling abilities, thousands of children in the U.S. and around the world are neglected, abandoned, left to deteriorate in the foster system, or forced to share a metal crib with three other toddlers in an orphanage. God forbid you’re born with a physical deformity or mental disability, especially in a second or third world country. You’ll be lucky to hit 20 pounds by the time you’re three years old — if you make it that long. And yet here we are, having a “meaningful” debate about the “controversy” that is breastfeeding v. formula. COME ON. Shame on us. Time to get over ourselves and champion more deeply meaningful causes for children.

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    • I really disagree. Just because there are other causes out there does not mean that we shouldn’t discuss topics like this. For many moms, what and how to feed their babies is an everyday, front-and-center issue. It is not worth less than something lofty like adoption (or more). Both are topics worth discussing and advocating for. If this somehow bugs you, I’d just click that little “x” in the top of the screen and not read it.

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    • I have two breastfed babes but I TOTALLY agree. Let’s worry about real neglect for a change, not about macronutrient content. We’re all feeding our babies as best we can, end of story.

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    • So, in your life, you always only talk about things that are most important? There are no other topics to discuss? When you go out with your friends to a coffee shop you only discuss matter of grave importance? Just because there ARE more important issues in life doesn’t mean we stop talking about lesser (although very real and important) issues. This article is addressing the WAPF recommendation that breastmilk is not always better, so although that may be common sense, some people may be following this advice, which is incorrect. To bring homeschooling and having many children into this is completely unnecessary. It doesn’t help the orphan’s cause.

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  33. Thank you SO much for this! Very well-said.

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  34. Great article. You made some great points that are very important to this discussion. Thanks for sharing

    Reply

  35. […] A. Price Foundation kicked up a fuss with their unusual breastfeeding recommendations.  I wrote my response to this last […]

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  36. Would you still say breastmilk is best if the mother smokes cigarettes? To be specific, she smokes 5 cigarettes a day (down from her pre-pregnancy-1-pack-a-day). She also smoked during pregnancy. She claims she just CANNOT live without her 5 cigarettes. She also eats a standard american diet…

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  37. […] Is Best.  I think it’s safe to say most mothers believe that.  In spite of the recent drama in the Real Food community over breastfeeding, and in spite of the very intense opinions and emotions that tend to develop from the topic of […]

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  38. […] Is Formula Ever “Better” Than Breastfeeding? :: Modern Alternative Mama […]

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  39. […] eat more than just breastmilk. By breastfeeding now, you’ll get him on the right track to eat real food later. Start healthy eating habits while your baby is little. It’ll be worth […]

    Reply

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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