Breast-feeding vs. formula-feeding: What's best?

Breast-feeding has many benefits. Here's how to support breast-feeding — and what you should know about formula-feeding.

By Mayo Clinic Staff
 Jay L. Hoecker, M.D. Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.

Breast-feeding provides the best nutrition for your baby and is the most widely recommended way to feed a newborn. However, some factors might lead you to consider formula-feeding.

Here, Jay L. Hoecker, M.D., an emeritus pediatrics specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, answers important questions about breast-feeding and formula-feeding.

How long should I breast-feed my baby?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months after birth — and then breast-feeding in combination with solid foods until at least age 1. Extended breast-feeding is recommended as long as you and your baby wish to continue.

Breast milk contains the right balance of nutrients for your baby and boosts your baby's immune system. It's considered the gold standard for infant nutrition.

Is any additional nutrition necessary?

Ask your baby's doctor about vitamin D supplements for the baby, especially if you're exclusively breast-feeding. Breast milk might not provide enough vitamin D, which helps your baby absorb calcium and phosphorus — nutrients necessary for strong bones.

What can I do to promote successful breast-feeding?

Taking care of yourself can go a long way toward promoting successful breast-feeding. Eat a healthy diet, drink plenty of fluids and rest as much as possible.

To boost your confidence, learn as much as you can about breast-feeding. Keep the environment calm and relaxed. Look to your partner and other loved ones for support. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Friends who've successfully breast-fed might be a good source of information. Lactation consultants are available at many hospitals and clinics. Your or your baby's health care provider might be able to help, too.

Can I use only bottles and still breast-feed?

If your baby has trouble latching on to the breast or if you and your family have a preference for bottle-feeding, you can exclusively bottle-feed your baby breast milk. Pump as often as you would feed your baby from the breast. Using a double electric breast pump can help you collect more milk in less time.

If you're having trouble making enough milk or if you can't give your baby your breast milk for a medical reason, you can turn to a human milk bank and feed your baby pasteurized donor milk from a bottle. The Human Milk Banking Association of North America can help you find an accredited milk bank.

What if breast-feeding isn't going well?

If you're struggling, ask a lactation consultant or your baby's doctor for help. If your baby's doctor is concerned that your baby isn't receiving adequate nutrition or hydration, he or she might suggest pumping and supplementing with expressed breast milk or formula.

Breast milk is the ideal food for babies — and the best way to keep a baby healthy — but proper nutrition and hydration are absolutely essential for your baby.

Does infant formula pose any risks to a baby?

Commercial infant formulas don't contain the immunity-boosting elements of breast milk that only your body can provide to your baby. For most babies, breast milk is also easier to digest than formula.

When prepared as directed, however, infant formula supports healthy babies who have typical dietary needs. A baby who has special nutritional needs might require a special formula.

Can I combine breast-feeding and formula-feeding?

Exclusive breast-feeding is recommended for the first six months after birth. A diet of only breast milk provides the best nutrition. Formula supplementation can disrupt breast-feeding as well as affect milk supply.

However, some mothers are able to combine breast-feeding and formula-feeding — especially after breast-feeding has been well established.

If I choose not to breast-feed, how should I handle the resulting emotions?

If you're considering formula-feeding, do your research so that you can make an informed decision. Then focus on nourishing and nurturing your baby — instead of dwelling on negative emotions. You might also share your feelings with your doctor or certified nurse-midwife, your baby's doctor or others in your support circle.

Remember, parenting is an adventure that requires choices and compromises. What counts is doing the best you can as you face this new challenge.

April 07, 2020 See more In-depth