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Ask a Doc: What does breast milk provide that formula does not?

AAD KohenOur answer comes from Dr. Carole Kohen-Diniak of Western Mass Pediatrics

Question: What does breast milk provide that formula does not?

Answer: Breast milk provides the nutrients that an infant needs to grow and develop, but it is unique in the way that it adapts to, and meets the needs of the growing infant. Unlike formula, it contains maternal antibodies that fight infection. Breast milk begins as colostrum: the very first, thick yellow breast milk that it made during pregnancy and just after birth. It’s been called liquid gold, and is rich in the maternal antibodies that can help the newborn to fight infection. This is especially important in the newborn period, when an infant’s immune system is still developing. By the third to fifth day after birth, colostrum changes into mature milk. Mature milk is thinner than colostrum, but provides all of the nutrients and antibodies that an infant needs to continue to thrive. 

Recent studies published by researchers at Duke University also show that breast milk fosters the development of healthy colonies of microbiotic flora in a newborn’s intestinal tract:  so-called “healthy bacteria.” These healthy bacteria form a protective biofilm in the newborn’s intestinal tract that aid in the absorption of nutrients.  The researchers also found that breast milk is especially rich in secretory immunoglobulin A, which helps establish an infant’s immune system in the lining of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts-- the first lines of defense against infectious disease.

For women who choose not to breastfeed, the use of modern formulas is an acceptable alternative to breast-feeding, and infants can thrive and do well, despite lacking the extra benefits of breast milk. As studies on the benefits of breast milk continue to emerge, this will help in the development of formulas which will better mimic nature.  Infant formulas, though, will always be playing catch up with breast milk.

‘Ask a Doc’ is a weekly post by Holyoke Medical Center. To ask a question, please feel free to submit to and we will do our best to answer it.

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