Is Breastfeeding Overrated/Irrelevant?

Recently, I heard comments from both breastfeeding and formula feeding mothers that breastfeeding is overrated. Breastfeeding mothers lament that their babies are still falling sick, whereas formula feeding mothers find that their babies are none the worse for it despite not being fed breastmilk. There are even formula feeding mothers who justify their choice by saying that formula milk is just as good, even better than breastmilk.

Firstly, I think we need to be realistic with our expectations. To expect our breastfed babies to not fall sick, ever, is a bit unrealistic. If there are school-going, older siblings at home, the chances of the baby catching some bug will be higher. Similarly, if you frequently bring your baby to crowded areas, or meet a lot of people (some of them may be suffering from some bugs), then you can only expect a higher chance of your baby falling sick. According to breastfeeding-friendly doctors, things could be worse if your baby is not breastfed. He will fall sick more often and take a longer time to recover.

Then there is the matter of statistics. I am very sure that we can find one breastfed baby who is overall weaker than another formula-fed baby. However, we can’t draw our conclusion based on a sample of 2 babies. Although breastfeeding protects the baby from diseases, we must remember that one person’s state of health is different from another. I am sure if we compare two formula fed babies, there will be one who is generally stronger than the other. If you have a baby who is ‘weaker’ in general, it is all the more important for you to breastfeed as it will help to give your baby the extra protection.

However, if you take a bigger sample of babies, then breastfeeding will come up the winner. This would be a more accurate (and statistically sound) picture. This is why organisations like the World Health Organisation recommends EXCLUSIVE breastfeeding for the first six months of the baby’s life and breastfeeding for up to 2 years. There are enough research to show that breastmilk is far superior to formula milk. It is a scientific fact. Hence, the argument that formula milk is just as good or even better than breastmilk is just not sound.

But we all grew up on formula milk and we are all fine, aren’t we? Some health issues do not appear immediately but the impact will surface years down the road. Who knows how much of the health problems our generation faces, e.g. obesity, diabetes, allergies, are partly contributed by the fact that we were formula fed? Hence, we should not take such a short sighted view of the matter and conclude that breastfeeding is overrated.

Some people feel that breastfeeding is irrelevant to us since we are not living in some backward, 3rd world countries and formula milk are easily available here. Breastfeeding and formula feeding should not be viewed as alternatives of each other in a manner of them being simply a matter of lifestyle preference. Because of the importance and the benefits of breastfeeding, it should be considered on its own merits and not in relation to formula milk. Formula milk should come in only when breastfeeding cannot take place. In other words, a necessity and not a lifestyle choice.

Breastfeeding is ALWAYS relevant and ALWAYS important. It does not matter whether formula milk is easily available or not. To say that women don’t need to breastfeed if they can get formula milk easily basically implies that formula milk is just as good as breastmilk. I have already said here as well as elsewhere that this is not true.

In fact, the WHO’s recommended infant nutrition is first and foremost mother’s breastmilk, followed by direct breastfeeding from another mother, and then followed by expressed breastmilk from other women, and THEN formula milk. In other words, the mother should breastfeed the baby. In the event that the mother is unable to feed her baby directly, then the baby should be fed expressed breastmilk from the mother, and if this is not possible, the baby should be breastfed by another woman (directly or by expressed breastmilk). If this is not available – in other words, worst case scenario – feed the baby with formula milk (which is termed as artificial milk).

Not too long ago, in the US (a 1st world nation), a mother and her two children were stranded and lost in the middle of nowhere for 10 days. They had no food. What sustained the two children was their mother’s breastmilk. Imagine the disastrous outcome if the baby was formula fed.

I am not trying to condemn formula feeding mothers. We are all imperfect beings living in an imperfect world. There are many reasons why women fail to breastfeed or choose not to breastfeed. Having been through it myself, I am fully aware that there are plenty of obstacles to breastfeeding. At times, circumstances just do not allow it (unfortunately). That said, I still want to stress that breastfeeding is scientifically proven to be the best form of infant nutrition. Ideally, every mother should try to breastfeed at least for some time. If a mother chooses to use formula milk, it is her choice and she should not have any negative feeling about it. But please do not say that breastfeeding is overrated or irrelevant because it is just not correct to say that. Breastfeeding is, in fact, very relevant today and under-rated most of the time.

Further reading : World Health Organisation – Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding