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Breast Milk vs. Formula

I’m going to repeat what everybody knows about breast feeding: Breast feeding is good, both psychologically and emotionally. It strengthens the baby’s immune defenses, allows you to get more rest at night, and is far more practical and economical than its store-bought alternative. These benefits are greatest in the beginning, so even if you only nurse for two or three months, it’s well worth it. The question many parents ask is: “How superior is breast feeding to bottle feeding from a health standpoint?” The answer is hard to quantify. Mixed properly, formula contains the same amounts of water, protein, sugar, and fat as breast milk, but it lacks the immunoglobulins and enzymes that breast milk provides. On the other hand, formula is reinforced with vitamins and iron in quantities greater than those breast milk supplies, even if these extra quantities aren’t crucial. But if you’re eating and nursing properly, you’re providing just the right amounts of these same nutrients anyway [See: Bottle Feeding].

Though breast feeding is very good at transferring immunity, it obviously doesn’t prevent all illnesses. Some medical evidence, for example, points to a decrease in respiratory infections in breast-fed babies, but in my practice, where the vast majority of babies are breast fed, we see our share of the usual coughs and colds every winter. A few years ago, another study stirred up media attention by reporting that nursing decreases the frequency of ear infections. As a result, I occasionally get calls from parents (usually late at night) seeking an explanation for their child’s sudden onset of ear pain. “How could his ears be infected? He was nursed for a full year!”

Another common misconception, that breast feeding guarantees acceptance to an Ivy League school, springs from an inconclusive but highly publicized study that argued that IQ is slightly higher in breast-fed children. In my many years of practice, honestly, I have not seen any evidence to prove that. In any event, almost all the kids I see are geniuses; their mothers can vouch for that.

In summary, if you think nursing isn’t for you, I recommend that you give it a chance. You may like it more than you think. If you’ve already given it a good try and disliked it (or if you don’t even want to try), your baby still stands a very good chance of being healthy.