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Formula vs. Breastfeeding: How to Choose

By Kerry Weiss
Reviewed by Terri Major-Kincade, M.D.
December 01, 2023

When you’re pregnant, you have to make many choices. One of them is how to feed your baby.

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is when you feed a baby the milk your body makes. It may also be called nursing or chestfeeding.

Pros

Doctors recommend feeding your baby breast milk for as long as you can, most importantly for the first six months. Nursing offers many benefits, says Soniya Mehra, M.D. Mehra is a pediatrician at Bayside Medical Group in California.

Nursing can be:

  • Healthy for your baby. It can lower a baby’s risk of health problems. It can help prevent sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and obesity.
  • Good for you. Nursing can help you bond with the baby. It can help your body heal after birth. It may lower your risk of some health problems.
  • Free and simple. Nursing parents don’t need to shop and pay for formula, Jeanette LaFreniere, M.D., says. LaFreniere is a pediatrician and breastfeeding consultant at Austin Regional Clinic Southwest in Texas. “Breast milk is always at the right temperature, and ready to feed,” says Mehra.

Cons

Breastfeeding can have drawbacks:

  • It can be hard to learn and take a lot of time. And some parents get sore breasts.
  • A nursing parent must watch what they eat. They should be careful about caffeine, alcohol, and high-mercury fish.
  • Pumping takes time and energy. When you’re away from your baby, you may need to pump milk. Breast pumps can be costly. But most health insurance plans, including Medicaid, cover breast pumps and parts, says LaFreniere. Ask your doctor for a prescription for a pump.
  • Not everyone can do it. Nursing can be unsafe for parents with certain health issues or taking certain medications. People shouldn’t nurse if they have a problem with drugs or alcohol.

Formula Feeding

Formula has nutrients your baby needs to grow and develop. It’s made to be very close to breast milk.

Pros

Formula feeding can be:

  • Handy. Any adult caregiver can make a bottle of formula. You may be able to share more feeding duties with a partner or other family member.
  • Freeing. You won’t have to pump milk when you’re away from the baby.

Cons

Formula feeding can have drawbacks:

  • It can cause stomach issues. Formula-fed babies tend to be more gassy and have firmer poop.
  • It’s costly. It costs around $1,500 to feed a baby standard formula for their first year. Some babies need pricey special formulas.
  • It requires planning. You have to make sure you never run out of formula. You’ll need to prepare and plan bottle feedings when you leave home.

Mixed Feeding

You may have the option to nurse and feed your baby formula. This is called combination feeding or mixed feeding. It’s also called supplementing.

Mixed feeding offers some of the same benefits as nursing, says Mehra. But it may lead to:

  • Issues with nursing
  • Lower milk supply
  • Stopping chest/breastfeeding early

How to Choose

Ask yourself questions to help you decide:

  1. How much time will you spend at home with your baby?
  2. Will you work? Does your workplace offer a place to pump?
  3. Do you have a storage space for breast milk?
  4. Do you have access to lactation support?

LaFreniere recommends trying to chest/breastfeed after you give birth. Ask for help if you need it. Start by talking to your baby’s doctor. Your hospital or birth center may offer support.

You can also connect with your local Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) office. WIC offers access to:

  • Lactation support
  • Breast pumps
  • Formula

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