Formula: Does it negate breast milk's benefits?

I work with new mothers as a home visitor to assist in parenting, coping skills and many other life skills. I frequently get asked by breastfeeding mothers if they can give their baby a formula bottle at night so they can get some sleep. I do not recommend this for many reasons, but I have wondered if giving a baby formula will negate the benefits of mother's milk?

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Debbi Donovan

Debbi Donovan is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, as well as a retired La Leche League Leader. For more than a decade, Debbi... Read more

Though my first choice would be to see a baby getting all his nutritional needs met at a mother's breast through nursing, I would hate for parents who must supplement for one reason or another to feel that it is not worthwhile to provide any breast milk for their baby, if they can't provide it all. Even small amounts of breast milk provide babies with important nutritional and immunological properties.

Mixing of breast milk and formula may decrease lysozyme (an anti-infective factor) activity in human milk. (Quan R et al., Clinical Pediatrics, 1994)

When a baby is fed formula, there are risks. I would definitely not recommend feeding a baby formula so he will sleep more soundly through the night. First, not all babies that are fed formula sleep well. A study in 1986, "Sleep Patterns of Breast-fed and Non Breast-fed Infants", found that during the first 3 months of life, there was no difference in nighttime feeds between these two groups. At 3 months, the breastfed baby spent only 20 minutes less time sleeping at night than his formula fed peers.

Since cow's milk (and soy) allergies are very common in the first year of life, formula could cause problems for a child, ranging from digestive disturbances to a severe allergic reaction. Since research now shows that breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from SIDS than their artificially fed counterparts, it is probably not wise to interfere with a baby's naturally lighter sleep cycles. The baby's frequent waking may be protective.

For mothers who will be combining breast milk and formula feeds, it is often recommended that their babies be given the low-iron version of formula, to avoid interfering with the absorption of the iron in breast milk. Have them discuss this with their healthcare provider. I would also recommend not supplementing at every feed. Try to leave some times when the baby receives only breast milk. Best wishes in your work with new moms!

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