Breastmilk vs. Formula

When doing research about raising a baby, you’ll find a lot of equivocation surrounding many controversial topics. The books tend to tread lightly so as not to seem too polarizing and thereby limit their audience. A chief area where you’ll hear a lot of back and forth is the debate between breastfeeding and formula feeding. I’ll break it down square for you.

Breastmilk is without question the better choice for your baby. It is not, however, the most convenient choice and nor is it a choice that every woman will be capable of choosing due to various physiological reasons.

Formula has made many strides over the years, but there are vast quantities of helpful agents that are present in breastmilk that simply cannot be synthesized with modern medicine. Rather than break down all the particulars, I’ll give a quick anecdotal illustration. Breastmilk produces antibodies to fight illness. Let’s say Dad goes out to the store to pick something up and manages to have a flu bug latch onto him while he’s out. He comes home, the baby is exposed. When the baby nurses with Mom, she is also exposed. Since breastmilk is just this side shy of magic, when the mother is exposed to this flu bug, her breastmilk will begin to fill with antibodies to that illness, which are then passed onto the child while nursing. There’s a good reason why breastfed babies don’t get sick nearly as often as formula fed babies.

When the question of “What is best for the baby?” is in play, the answer is always breastmilk. But breastmilk sometimes just isn’t possible. Some babies can be allergic (a very small percentage), some mothers don’t produce enough milk for a baby to gain weight properly, some mothers have nipples shaped in such a way to make breastfeeding impossible. In many of these cases, using a breastbump to express milk and then bottlefeeding is usually a fairly simple solution (which also has the benefit of shifting some work over to Dad). The only issue with the pump is that it simply isn’t as effective at maintaining a mother’s milk supply as a nursing baby.

So, while formula is far from a bad choice, it’s just not the best choice. Is it wrong to choose formula over breastmilk? No. It’s just not the best choice.

That being said, I’ll really only be speaking to breastfeeding, as that’s my area of exposure.

The Useful Facts

Janelle and I had a hell of a time getting consistent info regarding breastfeeding. Here’s the info you need:

In situations where babies may not be gaining weight as easily as hoped, babies should be fed every 2-3 hours. You measure intervals between feedings from the start of one feeding to the start of the next (rather than end of one to start of the next).

Once a baby is confirmed to be gaining properly (usually this is determined to be once they have gained back their birth weight, or close to it), it is safe to allow the baby to sleep until they are hungry. However, it is still a good idea to feed every 2-3 hours during the day to ensure that the baby sleeps longer at night. Even allowing your baby to sleep at night, though, don’t expect more than 5 hours between feedings for a couple months.

Do not introduce bottles or pacifiers earlier than 6 weeks, to prevent nipple confusion. If a baby learns to prefer the firmness of an artificial nipple, or the ease of feeding through a bottle, he will begin to turn away from the breast.

Do not wait longer than 3 months to introduce a pacifier or a bottle. At that point the baby will fight taking those items.

Babies have growth spurts around 2 week and around 5-6 weeks. During these times your baby will likely be hungrier than normal. Feel free to feed more regularly as well.

Every time a baby cries, it doesn’t mean he’s hungry. If your baby is crying and turning his head and opening and closing his mouth like he’s searching for a breast, he’s hungry. If he’s not crying, but is sitting around opening and closing his mouth and smacking his lips, that’s your first sign he’s hungry.

There’s no real problem feeding a baby before they exhibit signs of hunger… but don’t feed them too often. Feeding every hour (as a rule, not during a growth spurt, where this may be needed), may train your baby to eat in small, snacky doses. This is bad due to the composition of breastmilk. There is foremilk and hindmilk. The hindmilk is what holds most of the calories your baby needs to grow, and he will only reach this with longer feedings.

If your baby sleeps during feedings, it’s not a big deal, and doesn’t mean that he’s not getting milk. He may be an efficient feeder. Imagine if you ate real fast and then had someone snuggle you up all warm and cozy. It’d be nap time for you, too. However, to ensure that you baby isn’t dozing too quickly, the easiest way to keep him active as a feeder is to lift his arm. If he looks asleep, but upon moving his arm around you feel some muscle resistance, he’s still awake and the disturbance will likely prompt him to begin eating again. If you move his arm and just get no resistance at all, you have a sleeping baby. At that point you may want to try switching breasts, or (PROTIP) use this sleepy time to change his diaper. You may be able to get in a fuss-free changing and then get him back on the breast just as he’s waking up for some reinvigorated feeding.

It’s important to note that poop from a baby on breastmilk matches many of the descriptions books will give you of diarrhea. Baby poop from a breastfeeding baby will be green, yellow or sort of mustard-orange and will seem to have little sort of pellets in it. This is actually milk curd. It will be fairly runny. Diarrhea will likely just be a more liquid form of the same. But again, with a breastfed baby, chances of diarrhea are low.

Ladies Only

The perception of breastfeeding is that’s something strictly for the mother. Bonding time that she has alone in a quiet, dark room with her baby while the father does something else in the other room. Well, believe me when I say that this sounds much more exclusionary before having a baby than after. Afterwards, you may relish the notion of some downtime. But I digress…

Breastfeeding certainly does not need to be a female-only affair, and at the start probably should not be. Breastfeeding is difficult. There are many factors for the mother to keep track of. Is she seated comfortably? Can she support the baby for the length of the feed? How is the baby positioned? How are his lips positioned? His tongue? Is he swallowing? Is he still awake? On and on. Performing poorly means that your child doesn’t thrive and that you will be parcel to some unpleasant side effects like cracked or sore nipples or afflictions like mastitis. Until things become second nature for Mom, it’s best if Dad is around to help out.

For Janelle and I, it started out very much as a team effort. While Janelle would get situated, I would get Joshua prepped. Getting him unswaddled and undressed (skin to skin contact helps babies with the nursing process). When she was ready, I would hand him over and let her get him positioned. I would hold Joshua’s hands out of the way to make sure he didn’t interfere with his own lunchtime, which he is apt to do. When breastfeeding begins, Mom’s breasts will be very firm and the milk will not come easily. It needs to be massaged out until her tissues get more accustomed to just releasing it naturally. So, to keep her arms from getting too tired, I would massage her breast tissue and help with expressing milk. Then while Janelle would get cleaned up, I would change Joshua’s diapers and get him redressed. It made things less stressful for Janelle.

Now, a couple weeks in, she’s practicing tackling these changes without me, since I’ll be returning to work months before she does. But I was part of the process. I helped get breastfeeding established and I know that while it would have happened without me, there would have been far more tears and frustration. So, I’m happy enough to sit on the sideline while Janelle gets her alone time with the little guy because I’m aware of how to contribute to the process. All father’s should consider helping Mom out with the breastfeeding, just to get an idea of how tricky it is.

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