Is Breastmilk More Filling Than Formula?

It’s important to note that as a dietitian and lactation consultant, I fully support all the ways to feed a baby and work with moms on how to do just that. I think there are so many questions related to breastfeeding because honestly, if it goes well, people are somewhat hesitant to say so because many people don’t have great experiences with it. If it goes poorly, people have bad experiences with it and sometimes don’t seek out extra help. Even when they do seek out help from a lactation specialist, they may still feel overwhelmed or frustrated, or even physically be unable to make enough milk.

picture of baby feet

A lot of times early troubleshooting of lactation, mom, and baby is the best way to find success with breastfeeding. For the purpose of this post, I will speak to the benefits of breastfeeding. But simply because breastfeeding has benefits, doesn’t mean formula does not. They are not mutually exclusive and this post is not meant to add any source of guilt or shame around feeding your baby, but instead, to give a lactation consultant perspective on the filling aspect of breastmilk.

Breast milk and infant formula have different compositions. One of the most important benefits to breastfeeding is the impact on the baby’s immune system. Breastmilk is a way for mom to pass on antibodies from herself to her baby through the baby’s diet. Breastmilk is also typically higher in fat which allows baby’s to feel fuller faster than with formula, but may leave them hungrier more often. While it may feel that your baby is latching to feed all the time in the early days (they are!) remember that this is good fro both mom and baby. 

Breastfed babies help regulate mom’s milk supply by stimulating more milk production each time they latch. When they frequently latch in the first one to two weeks, they are working on building mom’s breastmilk supply. The frequent latching should slow around the second week. A breastfed baby may be hungrier more often than some formula fed babies. That is related to a few factors including baby’s needs, any medical conditions or concerns, whether or not solid food has been introduced, how many months of age, and more. A few things to consider when talking about how much milk your baby may need are outlined below. Keep in mind the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months in the first year of life and up to two years if mom and baby find that is the best option. 

1. Nutrient Composition

Breast milk is tailored to meet the specific nutritional needs of a human infant. It contains a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats that are easily digestible and bioavailable. Breast milk also contains antibodies and other bioactive compounds that support the baby’s immune system and overall health. Formula, on the other hand, is designed to mimic the nutritional content of breast milk but may not have all the same bioactive components.

2. Digestibility

Breastmilk is typically easier for babies to digest compared to formula. It is digested more efficiently, which can lead to babies feeling hungry sooner after consuming formula. Breastmilk’s composition changes as the baby grows to meet their changing nutritional needs.

There are (of course) exceptions. Some babies have health condition and need medical care which can change the way the digestive system even works! A friend of mine was breastfeeding just fine, but due to a milk-protein allergy, had to change to specialty formulas. Of course, overall, generally healthy babies with regular sleep patterns and no medical concerns typically guide our recommendations and that of health care providers.

3. Volume

A newborn baby’s stomach is about the size of a marble, so it is a good idea to anticipate feeding every 1-2 hours, especially in the first week. Honestly, we never reached the every 3 hour mark- even at baby’s first birthday, we were still sitting around every 2 hours with my breastfed infant.

Breast milk is produced on a supply-and-demand basis, so a breastfeeding baby can control the flow and volume of milk they consume. Babies may naturally regulate their intake of breast milk and stop when they are full. In contrast, formula-fed babies are often given specific volumes of formula, which may lead to overfeeding in some cases. Babies fed human milk in bottles do tend to mimic those of formula fed babies and take the full volume. Sometimes, seeing the volume is reassuring to the mom and the health care team, but remember as long as baby is growing well they are likely taking a good amount of breastmilk for them at that time. 

4. Satiety

But how can you tell if your baby is getting enough milk? Especially if they are breastfed? Whether breastfeeding, bottle feeding, or combination feeding (both breast and bottle) it can be trick to know when a baby’s tummy is full and they’ve gotten enough breast milk for that breastfeeding session. Typically, a baby will stop breastfeeding when they feel they have had enough mother’s milk- this can be trickier when formula fed.  The fat content of breastmilk is typically high and can help the baby feel full faster. Some babies may also feel fuller after breastfeeding due to the comforting and bonding aspects of nursing. The act of breastfeeding (and skin to skin contact) provides emotional satisfaction in addition to meeting nutritional needs and provides health benefits for new mothers, too! Of course, satiety for each baby varies and changes as they continue to grow. While hunger cues like rooting, smacking lips, and crying are the way the baby’s body tells us he or she is hungry. Baby’s weight gain patterns are a great way of telling us whether or not we are meeting the baby’s nutritional needs. Your health care team will use the world health organization growth chart to track you baby’s growth and weight gain patterns. 

5. Differences Among Babies

Every baby is unique, and what satisfies one baby may not satisfy another. No two infants are the same! Just when we get used to a pattern, that pattern will probably change. Breastfed infants and formula-fed infants go through growth spurts and based on baby’s age, they may go longer periods of time between feeds. Sometimes they wake in the middle of the night, and sometimes they sleep through the night with no signs of hunger. No two families are the same either, and as a mom, breastfeeding is unique to you as well. What works for one family, simply may not work for another. We have to be realistic with what we can and cannot do in order to provide a safe and nurturing home for our own children.

It’s important to note that both breast milk and formula use provide adequate nutrition for babies when used appropriately. Parents should consult with healthcare professionals to determine the best feeding option for their baby’s individual needs and circumstances. Breastfeeding offers various benefits, including immune system support and bonding, but formula feeding can be a valid choice for parents who cannot or choose not to breastfeed. Ultimately, the choice between breast milk and formula should prioritize the baby’s health and well-being as well as the new mom’s.

This post is simply to provide nutrition and lactation information and is not meant as medical advice or to make anyone feel bad about their own feeding journey. The most important thing is having a healthy baby and the best choice for you may not be the best choice for another mom. Whether a first time mom or mom of young children, I hope you find some guidance here to help you decide to give the best nutrition to your infant.

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