Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding: How to Decide?

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Breastfeeding Formula

When your baby arrives, what will he or she eat? It’s easy to find strong advocates for both breastfeeding and formula feeding. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide the best choice for your family.

Exclusive Breastfeeding

Organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life. Parents able and willing to pursue this goal may choose to use pumping as an alternative to direct nursing, or may prefer to avoid the use of bottles entirely.

Breastfeeding has many benefits. Breastmilk contains an ideal balance of nutrients to support the baby’s development, carries beneficial antibodies, and even changes naturally over time to adapt to your baby’s needs. Breastfeeding is typically cheaper than formula feeding. The more you nurse, the fewer bottles need to be stored, heated, and cleaned. There are also some studies that indicate that breastfeeding can be beneficial for the parent as well, since it is associated with a lower rate of breast cancer.

Some drawbacks include breastfeeding problems such as cracked nipples or thrush, and a feeling of being “tied” to the baby. New breastfeeding parents may feel overwhelmed by how often an infant feeds (cluster feeding is normal and does not typically signal a problem with milk production). Parents may worry about nursing in public or have to plan how to introduce their child to a bottle.

Exclusive Formula Feeding

Some mothers are unable to breastfeed, or prefer not to. There are many reasons why a parent may not wish to breastfeed, including discomfort, insufficient supply, incompatible schedule, or experiences of trauma or body dysmorphia that bring complicated psychological associations to the idea of breastfeeding.

Formula feeding makes it equally easy for either parent, or another caregiver, to handle a feeding. Formula does not contain antibodies, but there are plenty of options that provide a similar composition of proteins, fats, and other nutrients to breastmilk. Parents may feel it is easier to take time away from the baby when needed.

Formula is typically a more expensive option. Formula feeding also often involves more work in terms of preparing and cleaning bottles. Your breastmilk will still come in after you give birth, so you may be at a greater risk for engorged breasts or clogged ducts in the early weeks if you don’t release some of the milk. Ask your doctor how to reduce your milk supply as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The Combination Approach

One of the odd results of reading about parenting on the Internet is you can come away thinking many parenting choices are mutually exclusive. Cloth diapers or disposable, co-sleeping or crib, breastfeeding or formula. While in some cases you really do need to pick one option (you can’t request a half circumcision, for example), many parents combine multiple approaches to find a system that works for their family.

You may choose to breastfeed in the mornings, evenings, and weekends, but use formula as a supplement or alternative to breastmilk while you’re at work. If you struggle with milk supply, formula may be an important addition to ensure your baby eats enough. You may also prefer or need to rely on formula for most of your baby’s nutrition, but enjoy breastfeeding once or twice a day to bond. Choosing a hybrid approach does not mean you somehow don’t “count” as a breastfeeding parent. Even if some online forums make a passionate case for one or the other feeding choice, most people you will encounter in real life (including many lactation consultants and breastfeeding advocates) agree that every family’s circumstances are different. The most important thing is to have a healthy, well-fed baby and healthy parents.

Jessica Sillers
Jessica Sillers is a parenting and finance writer whose work has been featured in Pregnancy & Newborn, Headspace, and more. As a new mom herself, she’s passionate about helping other parents find the community and support they need. When she’s not writing, she loves spending time with her family, reading, and hiking.

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