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Is breast milk more nutritious than infant formula?

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By : Nurturing Life's Nutrition Team | Montreal Diet Dispensary
— Updated on :

Yes. There are many advantages on the nutritional and immune level compared to infant formula.

PROTEIN

There are 2 main types of proteins in breast milk and commercial infant formulas (CIF); whey and casein. Whey is more easily digested than casein. As indicated in the attached table (French only), in breast milk, the whey/casein ratio progresses with time. The concentration of casein increases and the concentration of whey decreases gradually as the baby’s digestive capacity evolves. As for CIFs, different ratios exist, but never in the same proportions as breast milk.

Whey is comprised of several factors that help the baby’s immune system to develop, mainly α-lactalbumin. While breast milk is rich in this factor, CIFs contain very little of it. In addition, CIFs do not contain any other substances with immune properties.

Finally, it is often reported by parents that CIFs fill the baby more than breast milk. The baby’s hunger is filled for longer than breast milk.

CARBOHYDRATES

The carbohydrates found in breast milk are lactose (present in greater quantities) and oligosaccharides. The latter, acting as prebiotics for the bacterium Lactobacillus bifidus, promote the development of the intestinal flora and help prevent digestive tract infections (eg. diarrhea).

On the opposite, CIF does not contain oligosaccharides, unless they have been enriched. CIFs are harder to digest for the babies, which can affect their sleep.

FAT

Breast milk is rich in essential fatty acids, which are very important for the development of the child. The amount of fat increases with breastfeeding. The more the breast gets emptied, the more the fat concentration increases. Furthermore, lipase, an enzyme found in breast milk, facilitates the absorption and digestion of fats, thus allowing the baby to consume more energy.

Breast milk contains cholesterol. It is particularly important in the composition of brain tissue. Breastfed children have higher levels of blood cholesterol than children who receive CIF, since they contain very little or no cholesterol. In addition, breastfed children have a better lipid profile (amount of fat in the blood) during adolescence, compared to children who received a CIF, which could be beneficial for cardiovascular health in adulthood.

VITAMINS, MINERALS AND OTHER COMPOUNDS

The body of the mother usually has stores of vitamins A, D, E and K, and depend on her diet. Breast milk also contains minerals, and concentrations remain fairly constant. Breast milk does not contain a lot of iron, but it seems that the amount absorbed, which is 5 times greater than the iron found in CIFs, is adequate for the needs of the infant.

In addition to the above-mentioned nutrients, other substances are also contained in breast milk, including certain hormones and antibodies. They contribute to the maturation of the intestines of the infant, the development of immune cells, and even the function of the thyroid gland.

BENEFITS OF BREAST MILK

With all the protective factors it contains, breast milk is truly effective in protecting infants and contributes to the proper development of the immune system. Breastfed babies are less likely to get ear infections, lung infections, diarrhea and enterocolitis (inflammation of the small or large intestine tissue). In addition, breast milk contains hormones which contribute to the digestion of milk, improving the absorption of many nutrients. It is very nourishing and adjusts to the needs of the baby throughout the breastfeeding period.

The protection provided by breast milk seems to extend into adulthood. Several studies show that breastfeeding may prevent many chronic diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and celiac disease. The exclusivity and duration of breastfeeding seem to determine the effectiveness of the protection.

It is therefore recommended to exclusively breastfeed infants for the first 6 months.

References

  • Agence de développement de réseaux locaux de services de santé et de services sociaux (Agence SSS) de la Mauricie et du Centre-du-Québec. (2004). Vers une culture d’allaitement. Document d’autoformation. Trois-Rivières.
  • American Academy of pediatrics. Policy statement. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827 -e841
  • CHU Sainte-Justine. (2008). Guide nutritionnel - Préparations commerciales pour nourrissons et solutions entérales. Montréal, Québec.
  • Gödel, J.C. (2007) Les suppléments de vitamine D : Recommandations pour les mères et leur nourrisson au Canada. Paediatr Child Health, 12(7), 591-8.
  • International Lactation Consultant Association. (2002). Core curriculum for lactation consultant practice. États-Unis : Marsha Walker.
  • Riordan, J. (2004). Breastfeeding and human lactation (3e éd.). Sudbury, Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett publishers.
  • Singhal, A., Cole, T.J., Fewtrell, M. et Lucas, A. (2004). Breastmilk feeding and lipoprotein profile in adolescents born preterm: follow-up of a prospective randomised study. The lancet, 363(9421):1571-1578.

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The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the official views of the Public Health Agency of Canada.