All parents want to give their little one the best head start in life.
A big decision new parents must make early on in their parenting journey concerns which type of milk to feed their newborn.
What are the benefits of breast milk versus formula milk? Is one formula milk brand better than another?
Our dietitian and lactation (breastfeeding) consultant answer your questions.
Is breastfeeding or formula milk feeding better for my baby?
Breast milk is the best for babies, says Natalie Goh, chief dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, and Loh Lee Lian, lactation consultant at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
Breast milk is uniquely tailored to the needs of the infant, they explain. The nutrients in breast milk are constantly changing to meet the baby's developing needs. It also contains factors that promote the development of the baby's immune system, helping to protect the baby against infection and inflammation. Breast milk is also easier to digest.
Additionally, breastfeeding helps to promote bonding between mother and child. It is also economical and convenient.
However, if breastfeeding or feeding breast milk is not possible, eg. due to medical reasons, infant formula milk is a reasonable alternative.
Formula milk has the known nutrients of breast milk added to its contents. Its overall composition is not the same as breast milk, although it is enough to meet the normal nutritional needs of non-breastfed infants.
How long are mothers encouraged to breastfeed exclusively?
Mothers are encouraged to breastfeed babies exclusively for at least 6 months, and longer if possible. Breast milk is the best for babies. Only when breastfeeding is not possible due to medical reasons, would mothers be advised to supplement with formula milk.
Mothers experiencing difficulty breastfeeding are encouraged to consult a lactation consultant or doctor for advice. This also helps to determine whether there is a need to introduce formula milk.
Parents should monitor their baby's growth and consult their doctor or dietitian for advice on feeding.
How does a lactation consultant help new mothers in terms of breastfeeding and formula feeding?
A lactation consultant is a health professional specialised in breastfeeding and trained to teach mothers how to feed their baby.
A lactation consultant can teach mothers how to hold and latch their baby to the breasts. Latching the baby well will avoid nipple sucking or sore nipples, and ensure that breast milk is adequately transferred to the baby.
A lactation consultant can also teach mothers to tell if the baby is feeding well and taking sufficient breast milk, as well as advise mothers on problems they may encounter.
Mount Elizabeth Hospitals offer ParentCraft services where lactation consultants are available to guide and teach mothers how to breastfeed and care for their newborn baby. Support and follow-up advice are also given after mother and baby are discharged.
Are there differences between formula milk brands?
The contents in regular milk infant formula are similar among major brands, says Natalie Goh and Loh Lee Lian.
In certain brands, some nutrients may be present in greater amounts. For example, most brands contain the nutrients docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA or ARA), which are thought to be important for brain development - although the amount of these nutrients may vary across brands.
Both Natalie Goh and Loh Lee Lian concur that there are no scientifically-proven benefits of one brand over another.
There are no scientific studies to show that certain milk formula brands are better for the child's development than others, as long as both brands comply with food regulations.
All infant formula sold in Singapore must meet the standards and requirements of the AVA Sale of Food Act and Food Regulation guidelines. This includes the minimum and maximum nutrient composition in an infant formula. This ensures that all infant formula sold are safe and nutritionally adequate to meet the normal requirements of infants who are not breastfed.
If I switch baby formula brands, will my baby suffer any side effects during the transition?
It depends on the baby's individual tolerance, says Natalie Goh.
According to Loh Lee Lian, if there are side effects, it is usually due to particular ingredients in the new milk formula that the baby is unable to tolerate or digest, and not likely because of the transition.
Is there a difference between infant formula vs. fresh cow's milk for babies?
Infant formula is made to suit the physiological needs of infants. Infants should not be fed fresh cow's milk, as the nutritional composition has not been modified to suit infants' needs. Fresh cow's milk should only be introduced after 1 year of age.
Must infants take different formulas for different development stages (eg. 0 - 6 months, 7 - 12 months)?
The nutrient requirements may vary depending on the age of the infants. Mothers are advised to use products according to their age-specific recommendations unless they have been advised otherwise.
According to Loh Lee Lian, the marketing of different formulas specific to development stages may be part of advertisement strategies by milk formula companies. Scientific evidence should be supplied by the manufacturers.
In conclusion, there is no scientific evidence for the benefits of one milk formula brand over another. The growth and development of a child depend on many factors. Breast milk is always best for babies, but if breastfeeding is not possible, formula feeding is the next best alternative to breast milk.
Whichever way you choose to feed your baby, the most important thing is to give your child adequate feeding, care, and love!
Information contributed by Natalie Goh, chief dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, and Loh Lee Lian, lactation consultant at Mount Elizabeth Hospital
This article was first published in Mount Elizabeth Hospitals' HealthPlus website.