What’s So Special About Breastmilk?

As you may have heard, this first week of August has been World Breastfeeding Week. You have probably heard much of what is getting put out in the media before, about how breastmilk is the perfect food and all the benefits it has for your baby. What you may not know is why that is. What is it about the chemical composition of breastmilk that makes it so special?  And if you decide NOT to breastfeed, is there anything you can do to give your baby more of those factors? In a nutshell, breastmilk contains everything you would need in an ideal diet to be healthy. It also provides everything a new body needs to establish a great foundation for health. And, breastmilk provides all these factors in an-easy-to-digest format that lets your baby’s body become an expert at digestion without having to work too hard.

How breastmilk compares to formula:

(Chart from “Comparison of Human Milk and Formula,” at AskDrSears.com. The formatting is better on the original site)  
Fats -Rich in brain-building omega 3s, namely DHA and AA -Automatically adjusts to infant’s needs; levels decline as baby gets older -Rich in cholesterol -Nearly completely absorbed -Contains fat-digesting enzyme, lipase -No DHA -Doesn’t adjust to infant’s needs -No cholesterol -Not completely absorbed -No lipase Fat is the most important nutrient in breastmilk; the absence of cholesterol and DHA, vital nutrients for growing brains and bodies, may predispose a child to adult heart and central nervous system diseases. Leftover, unabsorbed fat accounts for unpleasant smelling stools in formula-fed babies.
Protein -Soft, easily-digestible whey -More completely absorbed; higher in the milk of mothers who deliver preterm -Lactoferrin for intestinal health -Lysozyme, an antimicrobial -Rich in brain-and-body- building protein components -Rich in growth factors -Contains sleep-inducing proteins -Harder-to-digest casein curds -Not completely absorbed, more waste, harder on kidneys -No lactoferrin, or only a trace -No lysozyme -Deficient or low in some brain-and body-building proteins -Deficient in growth factors -Does not contain as many sleep-inducing proteins. Infants aren’t typically allergic to human milk protein.
Carbohdrates -Rich in lactose -Rich in oligosaccharides, which promote intestinal health -No lactose in some formulas -Deficient in oligosaccharides Lactose is considered an important carbohydrate for brain development. Studies show the level of lactose in the milk of a species correlates with the size of the brain of that species.
Immune Boosters -Rich in living white blood cells, millions per feeding -Rich in immunoglobulins -No live white blood cells-or any other cells. Dead food has less immunological benefit. -Few immunoglobulins and most are the wrong kind When mother is exposed to a germ, she makes antibodies to that germ and gives these antibodies to her infant via her milk.
Vitamins and Minerals -Better absorbed, especially iron, zinc, and calcium -Iron is 50 to 75 percent absorbed. -Contains more selenium (an antioxidant) -Not absorbed as well -Iron is 5 to 10 percent absorbed -Contains less selenium (an antioxidant) Vitamins and minerals in breast milk enjoy a higher bioavailability-that is, a greater percentage is absorbed. To compensate, more is added to formula, which makes it harder to digest.
Enzymes and Hormones -Rich in digestive enzymes, such as lipase and amylase -Rich in many hormones: thyroid, prolactin, oxytocin, and more than fifteen others -Varies with mother’s diet -Processing kills digestive enzymes -Processing kills hormones, which are not human to begin with -Always tastes the same Digestive enzymes promote intestinal health. Hormones contribute to the overall biochemical balance and well- being of baby. By taking on the flavor of mother’s diet, breastmilk shapes the tastes of the child to family foods.

The comparison chart above is not an exhaustive list, but hits on some of the most important distinctions. Another good resource can be found here: Poster of breastmilk and formula ingredients.


What if I can’t breastfeed?

First, I would question that assumption. Almost every woman can breastfeed at least partially with the right education and support. Second, even if you are deciding not to breastfeed long term, consider breastfeeding for the first month or 2, or even just the first week or so. Every little bit will help your baby. That short time breastfeeding might be hard, but breastfeeding gets considerably easier after the first few weeks. So don’t think that the way it starts out is the way it will always be if you were to decide to continue.
But, if you are truly not able to breastfeed or choose not to, try to ensure that your baby is getting as closely as possible what they would be getting out of breastmilk.

How to make formula more like breastmilk

Obviously, you can’t replace all the components of breastmilk when feeding your baby formula. But, these few tips will help formula feeding moms give their babies more of the benefits of breastfeeding, so baby is healthier. The links to specific products below are affiliate links to Amazon or other sites. I would appreciate it if you buy using the links, but you are welcome to go find the products and purchase them without the links. Whole Foods and other health food stores tend to carry similar products, if not these specific ones.

  • Get close, skin to skin contact time with your baby. We humans are designed to crave connection and skin-to-skin contact. The effect of this contact is most obvious in babies, and it helps them grow and develop more quickly.
  • Supplement Essential Fatty Acids like DHA if they are not in the formula you are using. Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are used in many essential body processes, such as brain and hormonal development, but not all formulas contain them yet. Both of these are good EFA supplements: Nordic Naturals Baby’s Dha, 2 fl Ounce and Nordic Naturals Baby’s DHA (Vegetarian).
  • Use an infant probiotic supplement. If baby is not getting the good bacteria for their digestive system from breastmilk, you can buy a powder to mix with baby’s formula. Here are some high-quality options in different price ranges:
    ProBiota Infant PowderJarrow Baby’s Jarro Dophilus or the liquid version: Baby’s Jarr-Dophilus Drops, or Udo’s Choice Infant’s Blend Probiotic.
  • Consider adding glyconutrients to baby’s formula. Glyconutrients are the 8 sugars necessary for many body processes. They are included under “oligosaccharides” in the chart above.
  • Around 4 months old, introduce small amounts of an allergen-introduction powder.  In breastmilk, the mother eating a variety of foods helps introduce baby to tiny amounts of these substances and reduces the incidence of food allergies.  With formula, small amounts of potentially allergenic foods can be added with a powder such as SpoonfulOne or  Ready, Set, Food!
  • Add additional nutrients with a liquid multivitamin. Most formulas are missing some nutrients. An infant multivitamin supplement like this one (Child Life Multi Vitamin and Mineral) can help fill in the gaps. An additional iron supplement might be necessary, since the iron in formula is not as easily absorbed.
If you want additional help, just ask! I and so many other people are more than happy to help you find the best way to feed your baby, and to support you during that process. La Leche League is a great place to start if you are considering breastfeeding.
Have you found anything else in breastmilk that is missing from formula, or a way to replace those ingredients?
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