Mother Nature intended that babies be conceived via lovemaking, birthed naturally, and fed at their mother's breast. Somewhere between that intent and how it has been carried out, mothers have been lead to believe that powdered, chemically-altered milk from another mammal is not only an acceptable food for their infant, but just as good or better than the milk that their breasts could produce. Doctors and breastfeeding educators alike throw around the phrase, “breast is best” so often that it’s hard to keep track of what it really means, or if it’s even true. When all the evidence is presented in black and white, it becomes clear that breast isn’t best—at least not in the way that formula manufacturers would like the public to believe.
Yes, you read that right. The decision to breastfeed is not extraordinary, nor is it anything above and beyond. If babies are born with the physical and emotional need to nurse, if breastmilk is the biological norm in infant nutrition, then it should be the standard against which breastmilk substitutes are measured. Breast isn’t best, it’s what should be expected. Instead of portraying artificial feeding as the norm and throwing around the supposed benefits of breastfeeding, doctors and the rest of society need to acknowledge the potential consequences of not breastfeeding. Formula companies have done an excellent job of convincing the public that breastmilk substitutes are a safe alternative, but that doesn’t make it true. The significant risks of artificial feeding are tucked neatly out of sight, while doctors happily recite the bottle-feeding propaganda that formula is just as good, merely lacking antibodies.
Somehow of all the ingredients in breastmilk that laboratories are unable to reproduce (or even identify), antibodies are deemed the only one worthy of mention. It’s true that each time a mother puts her child to the breast that she is transferring a dose of white blood cells, protecting them from illnesses she has been exposed to. Similarly, in the event that the child does get sick, her milk will speed their recovery and is gentle enough for even the most delicate upset tummies. Nestle proudly advertises their Good Start Supreme brand formula with “natural cultures to support a healthy immune system”—which to the naive eye of a new mom may appear to mean that they can give their infant the same protection from disease by feeding reconstituted powder from a can. What a shame that mothers are lulled into believing such nonsense when really all the formula company has done is add the same probiotics that are found in yogurt. Mothers who fed their children breastmilk substitutes often brag that their children were just as healthy (or more so!) than breastfed children that they know. Anecdotal evidence is handy for relieving guilt, but it hardly stands up to the common sense and scientific evidence that suggests that children who are not breastfed are sick more often and more severely than their peers.
Even without the oft-mentioned antibodies, there’s one recently discovered ingredient in breastmilk that on its own proves the inferiority of substitutes: stem cells. Catherine Madden reports in her appropriately named 2008 article “Breast Milk Contains Stem Cells” that when Dr. Mark Cregan began studying the cellular structures in breastmilk, that one species tested positive for nestin, the stem cell marker. A more in-depth look at that species “showed that a side population of the stem cells were of multiple lineages with the potential to differentiate into multiple cell types”. The article goes on to explain that, “This means the cells could potentially be ‘reprogrammed’ to form many types of human tissue.” Not only is breastmilk species-specific nutrition for children (opposed to processed, homogenized milk from another mammal or a plant), it arms the human body with the ability to heal itself.
The health discrepancy between breastfed and artificially fed infants doesn’t stop with antibodies and stem cells, though. According to the American Association of Pediatricians (2005), substitutes for breastmilk lack in protection against respiratory tract infections, asthma, diabetes, lymphoma, influenza, and leukemia—to name a few. Most noteworthy is their statistic that post neonatal infant mortality rates in the United States are reduced by 21% in breastfed infants. If that statistic is corrected to view breastfeeding as the norm, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) in artificially fed infants is 127% of that of those who are breastfed. Not only does the decision not to breastfeed prevent your child from being as healthy as possible, it makes them roughly one quarter more likely to fall victim to unexplained death. In a Natural Family Online special report entitled, The Deadly Influence of Formula in America (n.d.), Dr. Linda Folden Palmer calculated the ultimate cost of artificial feeding. In her chart, infant mortality rates (IMR) are the number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births, from birth to one year of age.
So how do formula companies get away with presenting their product as a safe alternative to nursing? Plain and simple, they get away with it because doctors are more concerned about not making mothers feel guilty than they are about making sure that decisions are made in the baby’s best interest. Evidence of this can be seen in the online interview with Jay Hoecker, M.D., a pediatrician at the well-respected Mayo Clinic (2006). When asked if it is risky not to breastfeed, he says, “If breast-feeding isn't working for you despite your best attempts to succeed, your baby may not receive adequate hydration or nutrition. In this case, sticking with it for your baby's sake may pose serious risks.” He continues, “Commercial infant formulas don't contain the immunity-boosting elements of breast milk. But when prepared as directed with clean water, infant formula poses no risks to healthy babies with typical dietary needs.” Not only does he perpetuate the myth that antibodies are the only way in which breastmilk substitutes are inferior, he makes sure to insinuate that mothers who selflessly push through struggles to nurse their infants are the ones who are putting their children at risk.
He doesn’t mention what the World Health Organization (2002, p. 5) says about how “virtually all mothers” can breastfeed and produce enough milk if given proper support, or how “Exclusive breastfeeding from birth is possible except for a few medical conditions, and unrestricted exclusive breastfeeding results in ample milk production.” Nor does he offer information on how to know if your baby is receiving enough nutrition. He doesn’t even take the time to list how to contact a local La Leche League leader or find a Lactation Consultant for breastfeeding support. Hoecker’s example is almost comical in how well it illustrates the misinformation surrounding infant feeding.
If a pediatrician learned that new parents weren’t using a car-seat, without a doubt he would lash out and tell them in no uncertain terms how dangerous and negligent they were being. He would pay no mind to the worry of making mom and dad feel guilty, because it would be clear that there is a difference between using fear tactics and using guilt as a motivator. The doctor would understand that the cause was too important to pander to the parents’ insecurities—yet although artificial feeding carries risks to baby’s health (both in the short and long term) and their very life, the decision to breastfeed is seen as too personal an issue to push. However, it’s possible that doctors like Hoecker aren’t entirely to blame for their ignorance. On his website (n.d), Dr. William Sears cites studies that conclude that artificially fed children are 7 to 10 IQ points less intelligent. Perhaps Hoecker just wasn’t breastfed long enough.
All joking aside, it is understandable how those in the healthcare field would fear that sounding like extremists works against their cause instead of for it. However, isn’t this one case where being an extremist would be a good thing? Telling new mothers and mothers-to-be that breastfeeding is about “benefits” such as faster weight loss and saving money does little to convey the importance of infants being fed their mothers’ milk. Furthermore, hiding the consequences of artificial feeding does little to undo the social stigma that nursing is “natural but not normal”—that breastmilk substitutes are the standard rather than an imitation. As a society, we need to lay the facts out in black and white and allow mothers to make an informed decision about how to feed their children. Only then can we increase the normalcy and duration of breastfeeding, and only then can mothers be truly guilt free about their choices.
Mothers needn’t worry about being able to always provide their children with the best, so long as they trust that their bodies and hearts know what their babies need. The Latin word for breast is mamma, so when a hungry infant cries for his “mama”, what do you think they’re really asking for?
Catherine Madden (2008). Breast milk contains stem cells. Retrieved from ScienceAlert website:
American Association of Pediatrics (2005). AAP Policy. Retrieved from AAP website: http://aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/pediatrics;115/2/496
Jay Hoecker (2006). Breast-feeding and Guilt. Retrieved from Mayo Clinic website:
Dr. Linda Folden Palmer (n.d) Deadly Influence of Formula in America. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from Natural Family Online website:
Dr. William Sears (n.d.) Breastfeeding Builds Brighter Brains. Retrieved April 4, 2008 from Dr. Sears’ website: