When it comes to how you feed your baby, knowing the ingredients in breast milk and formula, the cost differences, and the impact they have on health and sleep will help you make an informed decision.
Here we go with the comparison between breast milk and baby food. There are aspects in which infant formulas are similar to breast milk: they both provide energy, hydration and nutrients to help your baby grow, no matter which milk he or she gets.
But despite advances in the composition and manufacture of powdered milk, infant formula still doesn’t come close to matching the health benefits of your breast milk. Breast milk evolved over millions of years to be the perfect food for babies. It’s much more complex than other mammals’ milk, building our more complex brains and unique digestive and immune systems.
By comparison, cow’s milk, from which most infant formula is made, meets the specific needs of calves. It is not suitable for human babies, so it must be intensively processed when making pre-nutrition for infants.
„Did you know that the salt content (sodium) in cow’s milk is present in a quasi-toxic amount for babies?“, says Professor Peter Hartmann, internationally renowned breastfeeding and milk production specialist at the University of Western Australia.
„In fact, cow’s milk was classified as toxic to laboratory animals such as rabbits and rats in the early 1980s. If an ingredient is toxic to a laboratory animal today, it is not used in drug studies. So by today’s standards, pre-milk should not have been produced at all! Breast milk, on the other hand, contains only low concentrations of sodium.“ 1
What breast milk is made of?
From the colostrum that lines and seals your newborn baby’s stomach wall, to the mature milk that supports your baby’s growth- every drop of your breast milk contains thousands of healthy ingredients, including:
- Antibodies to protect against disease 2
- Hormones that strengthen your bond and regulate appetite 3
- Stem cells that promote organ development and repair 4
- White blood cells that fight infections 5
- beneficial bacteria that protect your baby’s digestive system 6
- Prebiotics, called oligosaccharides, that support a healthy gut 7
- Long-chain fatty acids that help develop your baby’s brain, nervous system and eyes 8,9
- Enzymes that support his digestive and immune systems 2
- Nucleotides and hormones that help develop healthy sleep patterns 10
One of the advantages of breast milk over infant formula is that it is a living liquid. It continually adapts to your baby’s changing circumstances. So when your baby gets sick, your body makes extra white blood cells and antibodies that pass into your milk and help fight the infection. 5
„The protective properties of breast milk are crucial and unique in the evolution of lactation", explains Professor Hartmann. „But we don’t yet have the data we need to know the full extent of Understand the protective elements and what they are responsible for, since breast milk is so complex.
„Take oligosaccharides for example- there are more than 200 of them. 11 They are the third largest ingredient in breast milk- yet we know little about what they do! They are likely to have very complex structures because this allows them to combine better with certain proteins, and when oligosaccharide and protein come together, biological effects occur.
My opinion is that since we don’t know for sure, we shouldn’t experiment with it! Breast milk is the natural choice.“ You can learn more about breast milk in our article, "What is breast milk made of??
What infant formula is made of?
Ingredients vary from brand to brand and country to country, but typical infant formula milk consists of processed skim cow’s milk with emulsifiers and stabilizers added to allow oils and water to combine when you prepare the infant formula. Other possible ingredients:
- Lactose (a natural sugar found in milk) and/or other sugars such as corn syrup, fructose or maltodextrin
- plant-based oils, such as palm, canola, coconut, sunflower and soybean oil
- Fatty acids, usually from fish oil
- Vitamins and minerals from plant and animal sources
- Some enzymes and amino acids
- Probiotics (in some pre-nutrients)
Other types of pre-milk, such as goat’s milk, hypoallergenic and soy formula, may have different ingredients.
"Scientists have found that there are more than 1,000 proteins in breast milk 12 – and even the best infant formula companies can only try to add one or two," Professor Hartmann explains. "Add to that the fact that they can only synthesize some of the many oligosaccharides in breast milk. So copying a few proteins and oligosaccharides does not give you breast milk!"
"With cow’s milk, extra protein has to be added to get the number of amino acids a baby needs," he adds. "But this extra protein is metabolized and broken down into components that can be converted to fat.
This is one of the problems with infant formula – babies are "too comfortable" with it. Parents often think their babies are doing well because they’re growing like crazy – but that’s not necessarily good for the long-term health of infants fed pre-nutritional foods. 13 That’s why baby food companies are now trying to lower the protein content in their milk so babies don’t get too fat."
Breast milk vs. pre-milk: health benefits
When deciding whether to give your baby breast milk or formula, look at the big picture. Breast milk is more than just food. It has an important protective role, lowering your baby’s risk for diarrhea, gastroenteritis, ear infections, colds and flu, and fungal infections 14-16 and cutting the chance of sudden infant death syndrome in half. 17
You may have heard that breastfeeding can improve your baby’s academic performance, 18 but did you know that it’s also been linked to better behavior, 19 vision 20 and better teeth alignment 21? Your breastfed baby also has a lower risk of obesity, and the lifetime likelihood of type 1 or type 2 diabetes 22,23 and certain cancers 24,25 is also lower. Learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies here.
Breastfeeding also burns up to 500 calories a day, 26 which can help you lose weight faster after giving birth. And the longer you breastfeed, the lower your own risk of developing breast, 27 uterine 28 and ovarian cancer, 29 heart disease, 30 and type 2 diabetes. 22 You can read more about this under Benefits of breastfeeding for mothers.
Breast milk compared to pre-milk: Practical advantages
Breastfeeding is usually better for your wallet. According to one estimate, families who exclusively breastfeed save $1200 to $1500 (the equivalent of approx. 1000 to 1300 euros) in the first year of their baby’s life. 31
And while breastfeeding probably won’t keep your baby from waking up at night, it will save time at feedings and help you both get back to sleep faster. Here’s how to get an extra 40 to 45 minutes of sleep every night. 32
In fact, breastfeeding saves you more time in general because you don’t have to do as much rinsing, disinfecting, boiling water, and preparing bottles for baby food- your milk is always ready and at the right temperature.
Plus, the foods you eat affect the flavor of your milk. So your baby can try new flavors at each breastfeeding meal and may like a wider variety of foods later when you introduce complementary foods. 33 Breastfeeding may even promote a healthier diet, as research shows that breastfed babies of mothers who regularly eat fruits and vegetables like these foods better than babies of mothers who don’t. 34 In contrast, pre-milk always smells and tastes the same, and even using different brands cannot mimic the complex taste of breast milk.
Last but not least: Have you considered the positive impact of breast milk on the environment? No intensive farming, factory emissions, transportation or packaging- Breastfeeding is better for our planet as well as for you and your baby.
You can find more information about the ingredients in breast milk now in our free e-book What makes breast milk so unique.