Before we dive into the nutritional gap between breast milk and formula, we want to make it clear that we are NOT trying to influence your decision to breastfeed vs formula feed, or are we trying to make any recommendations.
We believe that fed is best, and getting that job done is most critical. This choice is also very personal and you have to weigh so many factors - such as your sanity, sleep, time, medication, latching, etc.
We believe that you and you only are able to make that decision.
Yes, there’s so much guilt associated with formula feeding. The CDC recommends breastfeeding up to 1 year (the American Association of Pediatrics actually just updated this to 2 years 😮) and also lists the benefits of breastfeeding, which can come across as “breastfeed or else…” - sounds scary.
There are many research studies looking at short term correlations between formula feeding and various diseases/conditions. We found over 40 different conditions/diseases positively correlated with formula-feeding across research publications. Longer term studies are rare and extremely complex, mostly because of the numerous other factors that come into play as a child grows up.
The results of many long term studies are inconclusive (like this article reviewing the correlation of IQ and breastfeeding). At the same time, there are a lot of healthy people raised from formula. So what is the problem exactly? Is there a gap in meeting infant nutrition needs - and how big is it?
Unfortunately yes, there is a gap. If we compare the molecular level nutrients of breast milk to those of infant formula, they look very different. Breast milk is human created with human-specific nutrients. Most infant formulas are cow milk-based with added vegetable oil, vitamins, and minerals. Formulas are aimed at matching macronutrient (carbs, lipids, proteins), vitamin and mineral profiles of breast milk. This keeps infant formula safe to consume as deemed by the FDA. But what is not currently being asked is which specific carbs, lipids, and proteins are being matched to breastmilk. This is what we mean when we say molecular level nutrients.
Why is this important? Both glucose and lactose are carbs and can provide calories to babies, but their effect on the bodies’ glycemic index and the gut microbiome are drastically different.
This study of 363 very low birth weight babies concluded that the incidence for necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) was 2.8 times higher for formula-fed babies than that of breastfed babies (Trang et al., Pediatrics 2018)
The simplest explanation is usually the correct one. The difference between molecular nutrition of formula and breast milk is likely the reason for different performance. This difference is starkest in the most fragile of populations. The survival rates of babies with necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) differ based on if they're breastfed or formula-fed. As a result, babies in the NICU are often heavily recommended breast milk.
Fortunately, for healthy babies who eat healthy foods after being weaned, the difference between breastfed and formula-fed children becomes negligible. The human body is very resilient and the effects of poor nutrition are often reversible.
There is currently a nutritional gap between formula and breast milk. We want to take a giant step forward in the world of formula – to close that gap.
Even if most of our kids will be okay in the long run despite 6 months of sub-par nutrition, we prefer to deliver the best nutrition possible because every baby deserves access to it. Again, we are not talking about a parent's decision to breastfeed or to formula-feed. We are talking about the quality of the options that are available.
We dream of the day when the CDC recommends formula alongside breast milk for infant nutritional requirements because the quality of formula has improved that much. While we can’t replace the emotional bonding and immune functions of breast milk, there is absolutely room to dramatically shift the nutritional value of formula.