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  • Writer's pictureNicole Spear, MS, CNS

Feeding Your Baby

The topic of infant feeding; namely breast-feeding versus formula feeding, has been a hot topic of debate that cycles with generations. Interestingly, no one questioned how to feed an infant before the late 40’s to early 50’s. Breast-feeding was the only option. In the rare event that a mother could not breast-feed, due to a contagious illness, death or otherwise, a wet nurse (another nursing mother) was found to breast-feed the baby. So what happened from the time-proven, generational practices of infant feeding?

World War 2 happened. It was the first time in history where the men went to war and the women entered the workforce to manufacture war supplies. This new lifestyle did not accommodate breast-feeding or a homemaking lifestyle. As a result, food manufacturers began creating quick and easy meals, ready-made food products and the beginning of our current, processed food system was born. Infant formula was also created during this time in order to allow new mothers to continue in the workforce and allow others to care for their infants.

Strangely, the medical field also began encouraging the use of infant formula almost as soon as it became commercially available. Women in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s were actually told by their doctors that infant formula was healthier for their babies. There was absolutely no scientific evidence for this; however, the infant formula manufacturers used the medical community as their marketing tool.

Fast forward to this generation. It is now a widely accepted fact– even among the medical community – that breast-feeding is the superior form of nutrition for infants. However, infant formula is still widely accepted because of its convenience. There is also an increase in health concerns among women that make the use of infant formula necessary in some cases. It is interesting to note, however, that since its introduction and usage, the general digestive health of infants in America has turned for the worse.

Protein Type and Quality (Dairy vs. Soy vs. Human milk)

Cow's milk (and its associated protein, casein) has relatively large curds that are produced when cow’s milk comes in contact with an acid (like vinegar or the acid in the human stomach). The curds must be hydrolyzed by several enzymes in the stomach before being passed into the small intestine and especially before being absorbed and utilized by the body. Most infant formula is made using cow’s milk and when first introduced, infants had a hard time digesting the large curds. Today, infant formula manufacturers predigest some of the protein to ensure digestability; however, many infants still react to the foreign protein and their digestive systems have to work harder to digest and absorb it. Interestingly, cow's milk is the number one allergen among children, today. 

The high incidence of infant allergies and digestive problems arising from the usage of dairy based infant formula prompted companies to seek another protein source. Therefore,  soy protein was introduced and became the alternative to dairy based infant formula. The soy used in soy-based formula, however, has been fractioned and highly processed into an unnatural form called a soy protein isolate. This product does not look or act remotely like its original form. Currently, a hotly debated controversy exists regarding the use of soy protein isolate in infant formulas. One the greatest concerns surrounding its use is the fact that this chemically altered soy product is found to be highly estrogenic, meaning it mimics and activates estrogen receptors in the body. When we are already living in an environment and with a food supply riddled with estrogen residues, increasing estrogenic activity in infants is highly questionable. Could this be part of the problem of increasingly early puberty in girls or the increasingly extended puberty in boys? Could it be linked to the massive amount of hormonal imbalances seen in girls and evidenced by the rise in conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, PMS symptoms, dysmenorrhagia (irregular/problematic menstruation cycles), and uterine and breast fibroids in women? All of these conditions are related to unusual and increased estrogenic activity. In men, benign prostatic hypertrophy (enlarged prostate) is also related to increased estrogenic activity.

The protein found in human milk is very small and easily digestible. It actually coats the stomach and intestines and provides a very soothing effect. Infants who are breastfed experience very few digestive problems. It is important to remember that a newborn baby’s digestive tract is still immature until approximately 6 months. The protein found in human milk is designed to be predigested for this immature digestive tract. Soy and dairy protein simply are not as effective at working with this system.

Antibodies and Immunity

During the first few days, breast milk is composed primarily of an immune-rich substance called colostrum. Antibodies, one of the primary players of the immune system, responsible for identifying and remembering foreign bacteria and more, are live substances which can only be provided in a “live” environment such as breastmilk. Even after the initial colostrum is consumed by the infant, the later breast milk continues to supply antibodies in smaller quantities. The immune system of a breastfed baby will mature quicker because of the colostrum, resulting in fewer infections, colds, parasites and other problems arising from an immature immune system.

An unborn baby has a completely sterile gut, meaning there are not any beneficial probiotics, nor any harmful bacteria present. The first place a baby gets probiotics is from the birth canal during labor and delivery, assuming their mother has a sufficient quantity. Infants also get probiotics from colostrum.

Sadly, an infant born via Cesarean section and subsequently formula fed, does not get probiotics from its mother and so their immune system matures at a slower rate. This scenario can also happen with a normal vaginal birth, if the mother does not have sufficient amounts of probiotics in her body.

The lack of immune factors (eg. probiotics) is the greatest drawback to using infant formula. Live antibodies cannot be provided in this medium. Multiple studies have shown formula fed babies have higher risks of developing ear infections, colds, bacterial and viral infections, allergies and other illnesses during their first year of life and beyond. When multiple antibiotics are given to eliminate infections, the immune system is forced to try and rebuild its forces, leaving a child with a perpetually weakened immunity.


Last, breast milk provides an abundance of dietary fatty acids required for brain, neurological and immune development. Fat is the primary source of energy in infants and toddlers. Infant formula also contains fat, but neither the quantity nor the quality matches that of breast milk. In fact, many infant formulations include copious amounts of sugars as its primary ingredients. Breast milk also contains natural sugars, but fat is its the primary component.

To illustrate the importance of fat, it is interesting to remember that when a mother first begins to breastfeed her infant, fat is initially supplied. Only after the infant has suckled for several minutes does the milk composition change to include proteins and other vital nutrients. The changing composition is one reason it is important to breastfeed fully on each side to maximize the nutrients from the breast milk.

Brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA also pass through the breast milk and positively influences the infant’s neurological development, making it vital for mothers to include these healthy fats in their own diets.

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