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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Don't overlook importance of breast-feeding
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By Curtiss Hunt

Millions of us owe our early development in part to Gail Borden's invention of evaporating milk and the resulting famous concoction that was our sole food for the first months of life:

One can (13 fluid ounces) of evaporated cow's milk, 19 fluid ounces of water and 2 tablespoons of corn syrup.

If we survived this simplistic approach to infant nutrition, then why should we consider breast-feeding to be important?

In the 1700s, wet nurses in Europe were chosen for their milk with such care that special agencies were set up to handle their housing needs. By the 1880s, the era of my grandmother's birth, wet nursing had fallen out of favor, and the Sears catalog was offering milk substitutes including a product called "Ridge's Food for Infants" at 65 cents per bottle.

In the "Roaring '20s," the chances of my mother being breast-fed had slipped to 50 percent. Borden's canned product generally had been accepted as being nutritious, relatively inexpensive and free of bacterial contamination. At the same time, hospitals encouraged changes in infant care that greatly reduced the odds a mother would initiate breast-feeding.

By the time my children were born in the early 1970s, only 22 percent of all American infants were breast-fed at birth.

Now, there is strong scientific evidence that only breast milk, with few exceptions, should be fed during the first six months of life.

Why is this the case?

It is well established that breast-fed infants have about five times less stomach-intestinal illness, three times less lung illness and half the episodes of middle ear infections compared with those fed human milk substitutes.

Human milk is specially tailored to fit human needs. After all, breast milk is "alive," containing living human immune cells that are used by the infant to ward off infections.

Manufacturers do their utmost to mimic human milk, but a perfect synthetic product cannot be made until all of the nutrients in milk have been identified. Furthermore, there always is the concern that a nutrient might be left out in the manufacture of a milk substitute.

Infant formula manufacturers work very hard to ensure that such errors do not happen, as such errors have resulted in sporadic cases of deficiencies including iron, chloride, and vitamin K in the past.

An odd-sounding natural substance called docosahexaenoic acid is needed for brain development and most infants make their own. However, breast-fed babies have more DHA in their brains and new research suggests that breast-feeding permanently improves their IQ. At the moment, not all formulas available in the United States provide this nutrient.

Potential problems related to breast-feeding include: human milk has all the essential vitamins but it is low in the essential vitamins D and K such that supplements are sometimes recommended; breast-feeding is not advised for HIV-infected mothers due to the risk of transmitting the virus to their infants.

Breast-feeding always is the mother's choice and may not always be feasible. Fortunately, the economic and cultural barriers are falling 68 percent of infants were breast-fed in 2000.

The U.S. surgeon general has recommended raising that rate to 75 percent. That increase would save Americans more than $3.7 billion yearly in costs in preventable premature deaths, reductions of middle ear infections and GI inflammation and lost wages of the parents.

In a nutshell, breast-feeding trumps formula feeding because it can support health and reduce costs. And there always is the reason that parents appreciate: No one has to fix a bottle in the middle of the night!

More information on breast-feeding and infant formulas is available at www.contemporarypediatrics.com/contpeds/article/articleDetail.jsp?id=111702 and at www.eatright.org/Public/GovernmentAffairs/92_8236.cfm.


Last Modified: 10/23/2006