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Breast vs. Bottle: which is better for babies?

By Chaya Benyamin
 Unspalsh/ jordan-whitt
*Updated 2023
Since the 1990s, there has been a marked rise in advocacy for breastfeeding around the world. The World Health Organization leads an annual breastfeeding week, and many cities have adopted initiatives that encourage hospitals to offer new mothers more education on breastfeeding and to stop offering samples of formula. While doctors agree that both feeding options are safe and healthy for newborns and infants, the public has a decided bias in favor of breastfeeding. The recent nationwide shortage of infant formula further fueled the fervor of those in favor of breastfeeding. So, should parents swear by the breast, or keep on with bottle feedings?
Here are three reasons to keep bottle-feeding your baby and three reasons to stick with breastfeeding.


Bottle it, baby


The benefits of breastfeeding are overstated

Breastfeeding has been credited with feats large and small – from lowering chances of obesity to raising IQs. However, such findings can be misleading, as they are unable to account for confounding variables – factors that might influence the study’s outcome, like socioeconomic status or genetic predispositions. And pro-lactation sites may remove important context that helps readers to understand a study’s results. For example, some research may suggest that breastfeeding can stave off infections like ear infections, pneumonia, and diarrhea. However, readers must consider where such data is from. There’s a difference between studies that were conducted mainly in developing countries, where lack of clean water and other sanitation issues pose a real problem to safe bottle-feeding, and those studies done in Western, developed countries. After all, there is a big difference between bottle-feeding in New York City and bottle-feeding in Accra, Ghana.


Bottle-feeding is a viable and safe feeding method, period

If you were born in America between 1950 and 1980, chances are you received plenty of formula and are none the worse for it. While the prevailing rhetoric of today’s breastfeeding camp would have you believe that bottle-fed children are disadvantaged, the fact is that millions of healthy humans have been raised on formula. In fact, in 2018, the US shot down a pro-breastfeeding resolution proposed by the World Health Assembly; the US argued that women should not be stigmatized for finding alternative ways to feed their babies if need be. It’s important to remember that just as today’s seeming preference for breastfeeding is rooted in culture as well as science, so was the mid-twentieth century’s preference for bottle-feeding. Bottle-feeding was a symbol of scientific parenting and modernity, and parents were eager to embrace it. As formula is becoming even more scientifically advanced, there is no real reason to prefer one method over the other.


Pushing breastfeeding means pushing women back into conventional roles

Breastfeeding is a 24/7 job – it confines mother to baby and, in areas where public breastfeeding is taboo, it also confines her to the house. Ergo, pushing women to breastfeed is tantamount to pushing them into the home. The seriousness with which a mother is to approach her occupation as food source is echoed in lactivist Dr. Sear’s sentiment that, through the breastfeeding process, mothers (not parents, mind you) must learn to be “child-centered.” Pressure to breastfeed sends a clear message: Mothers are secondary to their children, and being a woman (with dreams and ambitions and all that good stuff) is secondary to being a mother. Just as women resist external parties limiting their career prospects or birth control options, women should also resist initiatives to discourage choice in feeding their children.

Breast is best


Breast milk is, in a word, groovy

Breast milk is a testament to the artful design of the human body. It has helpful antibacterial properties, it adapts over time to accommodate the growing child’s nutritional needs, and the body can generally generate it as long as there is a demand. For those with the time, resources, and wherewithal to breastfeed, its efficiency and benefits make it an obvious recommendation for health practitioners.


Industrial formula isn’t always safe or available

The 2022 nationwide shortage of infant formula is a prime example of why breastmilk is the better choice: It’s available more or less on-demand. Industry is plagued by human error, and the powdered formula industry is no exception. The CDC reports 4-6 cases of infant Cronobacter (a bacteria associated with meningitis) infection each year, which stems from contaminated formula. Beyond contamination, formula makers do not always ensure consumer safety. One extreme case of the failure of powdered formula to properly nourish infants comes from Israel, where, in 2003, vitamin B-1 deficient Remedia formula led to 3 infant deaths and severe damage to 23 other infants. These risk factors, though slight, are valid reasons to encourage breastfeeding in hospitals and in general.


Pushing more mothers to breastfeed could produce better public policy for parents

A main factor that prevents mothers from breastfeeding is the need to quickly return to work, sometimes in jobs that make no accommodation for lactating mothers. Increasing the number of women who breastfeed ups the urgency to set policy on matters like paid maternity leave, the availability of lactation rooms, time to pump as well as access to services that support breastfeeding. If the workforce would accommodate breastfeeding mothers and their needs, maybe more new mothers would be willing to choose the breastfeeding route instead of feeling like once they returned from maternity leave, they would be punished or burdened because of it.


The Bottom Line: Twenty-first-century humans have two perfectly good options for feeding newborns and infants: Breast and bottle. With the science of the presumed advantages of breastfeeding still at the jury, it seems more sensible to educate parents on all available options rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach to infant feeding. Where do you stand on this debate? How would you feed your infants?

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