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Breastfeeding vs. Formula: 25 Benefits of Breastfeeding

Is breastfeeding important? What makes breastfeeding different from formula feeding? Are there benefits to exclusive breastfeeding? If you’ve asked yourself any of these questions, you’re in the right place. Read on to learn 25 benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and why it’s better than formula feeding.

a mother breastfeeding her baby

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You’ve probably heard the common saying that “breast is best.” So is it true?

If you’ve breastfed at all, you know it’s not a walk in the park. Breastfeeding is certainly natural, but it doesn’t come naturally to any of us. It takes a lot of learning and a lot of emotional effort.

But let me promise you right up front: IT IS WORTH IT!

Breastfeeding is soooooo good for your baby. And it’s good for you too. 

Rather than arguing about if breastfeeding is better than formula, let me just tell you about why breastfeeding is a good thing. Here are 25 benefits of (exclusive*) breastfeeding. 

*Note: This blog post focuses on the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. By exclusive breastfeeding I mean that your baby consumes only breast milk for the first 6 months of their life – no formula, cereal, water, or anything.

1 – Breast milk has all the nutrients a baby needs.

Breast milk is packed full of all the good stuff. We’re talking carbs, fats, and proteins, as well as lots of vitamins and minerals. Your breast milk is all your baby needs for at least the first 6 months of his or her life, including providing enough fluids.

2 – Breast milk is easier to digest than formula (which means less gas, constipation, or diarrhea!).

Milk, be it from a human or an animal, contains two types of protein: casein and whey. Cow’s milk contains mostly casein protein. Human milk contains mostly whey protein. And whey protein is easier for humans to digest than casein.

That is one reason breast milk is easier for babies to digest than formula, which is often made from cow’s milk.

In addition to the type of protein it provides, breast milk also contains certain enzymes that aid in digestion.

And on top of that, breast milk contains another compound called “epidermal growth factor” that helps babies’ intestines develop a stronger lining. This growth factor improves digestion and lessens the chance of infection.

The great thing about better digestion? It means less digestive issues, which can include constipation, diarrhea, gas, and even spitting up.

Another good thing about how fast breast milk is digested is that it can still provide nourishment and hydration to a sick baby who keeps throwing up.

3 – Nutrients in breast milk are absorbed better by a baby’s body.

Related to digestion is absorption of nutrients. Our bodies digest food to break it down into smaller bits that our bodies can then use to perform its necessary functions. This breaking down and utilization is absorption. 

Babies’ bodies absorb breast milk better than formula largely because they can digest it better.

It also matters what form nutrients come in. If they are naturally occurring in a food (or breast milk) those nutrients are easier for our bodies to use. Some nutrients also require the presence of other substances in order to be digested and absorbed. (For example, eating vitamin C foods with foods rich in iron enhances iron absorption.)

Breast milk provides both natural forms of nutrients and a natural mixture of all the right substances for ideal absorption. Formula may contain many of the same ingredients but they are processed (more on that later) and are not combined into the same synergistic mixture.

Effective nutrient absorption is important because your baby continues to develop rapidly in those first 9 months of their life, similar to their growth in the womb. Good nutrition is required to fuel that development, just as it is during pregnancy.

4 – Breastfed babies enjoy health benefits later in life.

Breastfeeding is good for babies and their development. But the benefits reach farther than that. 

Studies have shown that babies who were breastfed have lower risk of respiratory illnesses, inflammatory bowel disease, childhood leukemia, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and more!

Other researchers found that breastfed babies (especially those breastfed for longest) had fewer ear, throat, and sinus infections as older children.

5 – Breast milk is always the right temperature and there are never leftovers.

There’s an old ad for the so-called “tru-breast” that points out a few perks of breastfeeding.

tru-breast ad

Like it says, you don’t need to worry about warming up breast milk or ensuring that it’s not too hot. It stays the temperature your baby prefers. Plus, no matter how much your little one eats, you don’t have to toss any out or worry about storing it.

6 –  Bottled breast milk stays good longer than a bottle of formula.

Even breastfeeding moms use a bottle occasionally. The nice thing about breast milk is that it naturally stays better longer than formula.

Any milk product from a cow begins to grow bacteria quickly (in about 1 hour). But breast milk can be left at room temperature for 4 hours before going bad.

Some babies take longer to eat from a bottle than they do from the breast, so you’ll be glad for the extra time. Plus, if you’re out running errands for a few hours, you don’t need to worry about refrigeration in order to have ready-to-eat milk.

(Check out the other CDC recommendations for proper breast milk storage here.)

7 – Breastfeeding doesn’t require any prep or cleanup work.

While we’re on the topic of convenience, breastfeeding takes the cake here, too, if you ask me. When your baby is hungry, you don’t have to find a bottle and make sure it’s clean. You don’t have to measure out the right amount of water and powder. Just find a comfy chair and begin.

And once you’re done, you don’t have to worry about cleaning up either.

This really is a big benefit because no new mom needs more things to do. 

8 – Your breast milk changes in response to your baby’s saliva.

Your breast milk is an ever-changing substance. Even just in one feed, the content of fat and nutrients changes from the beginning of the feed to the end. The same thing happens over time.

It also happens when your baby is exposed to new germs.

If your baby picks up a sickness and then he or she breastfeeds, your body can sense their need for new antibodies. Your body then produces milk containing more fighter cells to help your baby stay healthy. How neat is that?!

This is one strong reason to feed at the breast instead of with a bottle as often as possible.

9 – Breastfeeding helps your baby’s immune system develop and provides natural protection.

First colostrum and then breast milk provide the best chance to your baby of a healthy first few years of life, void of infections and diseases. Different components of breast milk help to regulate the bacteria in a baby’s mouth and gut which gives them a boost of immunity right from the start.

Even kisses from mom can boost babies’ immune systems because you take in germs from their skin that way and, just like with their saliva, your body uses that information to create the antibodies needed.

10 – Breastfeeding provides opportunity for skin-to-skin time, frequent eye contact, and time connecting with your baby.

Breastfeeding inherently means skin-to-skin time, which is important for a few reasons. Being skin-to-skin with your baby promotes bonding and attachment. It also helps to regulate your baby’s heart rate, breathing, and temperature.

In the first few weeks after birth, you may want to remove your shirt and the baby’s clothes to increase the amount of skin-to-skin you are getting.

Eye contact while breastfeeding also plays a role in bonding and in a baby’s development

Breastfeeding may become some of your favorite moments to connect with your baby, especially as they get older and start to play and react to what you do.

11 – Breastfeeding can improve your mood, including reducing symptoms of postpartum anxiety and depression.

With postpartum depression affecting about 1 in every 7 new mothers, anything that can improve mood and lessen mental stress is good news. Many breastfeeding mothers report generally positive moods (more than formula-feeding moms).

In addition to self-reported mood, studies have shown that breastfeeding mothers have the physiological signs of improved mental health, too, like reduced blood pressure and better cortisol response.

Other studies have found that breastfeeding and postpartum depression are linked. Breastfeeding mothers gain a certain level of immunity against postpartum depression. And they lose that protection if they stop breastfeeding.

12 – Breastfeeding helps you recover faster after birth.

Exclusively breastfeeding moms burn about 500-700 extra calories every day because their body is hard at work making milk. No, that doesn’t mean you’ll drop the pounds without any effort. It’s still vital to eat a nutrient-dense diet and exercise regularly.

Breastfeeding is like an add-on to those things. If you eat well and exercise and you breastfeed, you just get a little extra boost.

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13 – Breastfeeding helps your uterus to return to its pre-pregnancy size.

During pregnancy, a woman’s uterus goes from roughly the size of a lemon to roughly the size of a watermelon. In weight, it goes from about 1 ounce to 2 whole pounds. That’s a lot of change.

Obviously, it takes some time to undo that growth. 

Breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin, which encourages “afterpains” – cramping that helps reduce your uterus back to the size it used to be. These cramps are like contractions, so they’re not fun, but they’re necessary and productive, just like the pain of contractions.

14 – Breastfeeding helps reduce bleeding.

A lot of women fear hemorrhaging after giving birth. What a lot of women don’t know is that the oxytocin released by letting your baby breastfeed is the natural and original remedy to uterine bleeding.

This is one reason that babies should be placed on mom’s chest immediately after birth, with no period of time for testing or shots in between. If babies and moms are given the opportunity to breastfeed immediately, postpartum hemorrhaging would likely be much less common.

15 – Breastfeeding promotes the maternal instinct and a secure attachment for the child. 

As I mentioned in #10, breastfeeding and skin-to-skin time strengthen attachment.

A secure attachment, simply put, is when infants have learned that they can trust their caregivers to provide for their needs. Building a secure relationship with your child has lots of benefits, including making discipline in the coming years just a little easier.

When it comes to maternal instinct – meaning a mother’s ability to be in tune with and understand the needs of her child – breastfeeding seems to help.

One group of researchers found that mothers who breastfed their children were more sensitive to their children’s needs. And that heightened sensitivity leads to better attachment.

It makes sense, really. If you choose to exclusively breastfeed, you are choosing to be the sole provider of nourishment for your baby for at least the first 6 months of their life. All that time and closeness adds up.

I definitely feel like breastfeeding helped me be more in tune with the needs of my daughter.

16 – Breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

In America, cancer is one of the leading causes of death. Fortunately, women who have children and who breastfeed those children, reduce their risk of breast and ovarian cancers significantly.

This benefit may be due to the fact that pregnancy delays ovulation which lessens your lifetime exposure to estrogen. (Estrogen, if combined with certain risk factors like obesity, can increase your risk of cancer.)

It may also be because breastfeeding can cause a woman’s body to shed breast cells, some of which might have been abnormal and, therefore, precursors to cancerous cells.

If you breastfeed for longer than 2 years, you get the biggest benefit. Interestingly, that 2 years doesn’t have to be continuous or with only one child. If you breastfeed for a TOTAL of 2 years in your lifetime, you receive the maximum benefit.

17 – Breastfeeding saves you money.

Having a baby requires some extra spending, that’s for sure – diapers and a crib and lots more require some cash. But feeding that baby doesn’t have to cost you a dime, at least for the first 6 months.

The truth of the matter is that formula is expensive! If you breastfeed, you’re not paying any extra to feed your baby – just what you already spend on groceries for yourself!

Okay, so you’ll want to buy some supplies like breast shells and nursing pads. But those are reusable and aren’t nearly as expensive as buying formula every couple weeks.

In addition to that, you’ll likely spend less on hospital and doctor bills for a breastfed baby than a formula-fed baby.

18 – Breastfed babies go to the doctor’s office and hospital less often.

We already learned that breastfeeding supports your baby’s immune system and that children who were breastfed are generally healthier than children who were formula-fed. Those and other factors likely contribute to the fact that breastfed babies go to the hospital less, and that when they do go, they don’t stay as long.

Some of those other helpful factors are likely the nutrition babies are getting (see #1 and #3), the emotional connection and attachment achieved through breastfeeding (see #10 and #15), and the fact that mothers are healthier (see #11 and #12) which usually means kids are healthier too.

In addition to saving money on hospital bills, parents won’t need to take time off work as often to care for sick kids and that means more money coming in.

19 – Breastfed babies grow up to be less picky eaters. 

Though opinions vary on the topic of breastfeeding creating less picky eaters, studies have shown it to be a real occurrence. Since your breastfed baby is eating what you eat, in milk form, their palate develops to enjoy all kinds of foods once they start eating solids.

If mothers breastfeed their babies and wait to introduce solid foods until 6 months of age, those kids are far less likely to prefer specific types of food and to reject new foods.

In addition to tasting what their mother eats, it may be that introducing solids too early creates stomach issues or allergies because their little digestive systems aren’t ready for anything but breast milk.

20 – Breast milk contains more melatonin at night. 

It’s well established that breast milk contains more melatonin at night than during the day. That’s a good thing for a few reasons.

First, babies don’t have a natural circadian rhythm when they are first born. So the melatonin in their mother’s breast milk at night helps their bodies know that it’s time to sleep and helps them begin to develop their own circadian rhythm.

Those two things combined mean that breastfed babies generally sleep longer and their sleep is more beneficial than formula-fed babies.

Second, all of this improved sleep has implications for cardiovascular (heart) health, which in turn has its own health consequences later in life.

The melatonin in a mother’s breast milk helps her baby’s cardiovascular system develop properly. It also encourages good sleep and healthy gut bacteria and decreases inflammation, all of which indirectly support cardiovascular health.

21 – Breastfeeding is the best solution for engorgement and mastitis.

Whether a woman plans to breastfeed or not, her breasts will start to produce milk a few days after she gives birth. If that milk is not regularly removed from breasts (through feeding a baby or pumping), it is likely that that woman will develop clogged milk ducts and mastitis.

Mastitis is inflammation and infection of breast tissue. It can be painful and can cause flu-like symptoms. Though it can be treated, it’s easier to avoid it in the first place if you can.

Engorgement is when breasts are so full of milk that they feel tight and maybe even a little tender. Engorgement is normal but can be uncomfortable.

Paradoxically, breastfeeding is the best solution for both mastitis and engorgement. 

Breastfeeding is a supply-and-demand thing. So while feeding more may seem like it would only increase your supply, your body knows well how to handle this stage. It will adjust quickly if you let your baby teach your body how much he or she needs. 

22 – Breastfeeding is convenient on the go.

Though it is convenient to feed a baby with a bottle in the sense that you don’t need the privacy of a cover or a different room, breastfeeding is more convenient in almost every other way.

You don’t have to carry bottles and a can of formula. You don’t have to bring or find water when your baby is hungry. You don’t have to have a way to warm it up. And you don’t have to measure out the right amounts and mix it.

When your baby is hungry, you just find a seat and start to feed. Simple as that.

23 – Breast milk is available even in emergency situations. 

Another great thing about breastfeeding as compared to formula feeding is that you are the only supply you need.

Think about what would happen if you were in an emergency situation and didn’t have any extra formula.

What if your car broke down and you were stranded somewhere for hours? Or what if your flight got delayed and you were unable to get a store? What if you got snowed in for days or weeks on end?

For me, breastfeeding provides a lot of comfort knowing that my baby has food as long as she’s with me.

24 – Breast milk doesn’t have any additives.

For those of you who are conscientious about reading labels, you might be interested to know that formula often has some sneaky ingredients that aren’t great for your baby. 

For example, some formulas contain carrageenan, which has been linked to health problems like insulin resistance and digestive issues. Many formulas also contain seed oils which have next to no nutrition and lots of chemical residues.

As a general rule, natural and unprocessed is going to be better for us and our babies than processed.

25 – Breastfeeding helps your body produce the hormone prolactin which is a natural contraceptive.

Moms who are exclusively breastfeeding typically don’t have a period for much longer after birth than moms who use formula. That’s because of the hormone prolactin, which helps your body produce breast milk.

Prolactin can prevent your body from producing estrogen and progesterone, the hormones that control your periods. And if you don’t have a period, you can’t get pregnant.

That can be quite helpful if you don’t want to have another baby soon after your first.

That said, breastfeeding doesn’t work as a contraceptive for everyone. So it’s important to know that you will ovulate (release an egg) before you see your period start. That means you would be able to get pregnant even if you haven’t seen any bleeding yet.

So once you start having sex again, if you want to be sure you don’t get pregnant, you should use another contraceptive. (Or use cycle tracking so you can avoid having sex while you are most fertile.)

Conclusion: Breastfeeding vs. Formula

What a list! The benefits of breastfeeding, especially exclusive breastfeeding, are incredible when compared to formula feeding.

I chose to exclusively breastfeed my daughter and I loved it. It wasn’t always easy but it was always worth it.

Just so you know, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and World Health Organization (WHO) all recommend that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives.

They also encourage continued breastfeeding as you introduce other foods up to two years or longer.

Whatever you choose to do, I hope this list of benefits helped you think about breastfeeding in a new way. We all want the best for our kids and breastfeeding can certainly be a way for us to give them a good start.

Until next time,

Allison

READ MORE:

10 Tips for Successful Breastfeeding

20 Breastfeeding Hacks That Will Make Your Life Easier

18 Must-Have Breastfeeding Supplies

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