The food conglomerate Nestlé has for some time attracted some criticism for its marketing of baby milk formulas in the third world, where the diarrhoeal diseases caused by the making up of such feeds with contaminated water are believed to be a significant cause of infant mortality. Recent news reports have suggested that it is Nestlé’s profiteering practices in developing countries that were behind a breast cancer charity’s decision to decline its offer of a £1 million donation. More bad news for Nestlé, and other manufacturers of formula feeds, has come this month in the form of press reports of American research revealing that bottle-fed babies are significantly more likely to die in the first year of life than those who are breast-fed. Quick on the heels of this story has come coverage of British study suggesting that adults who were formula-fed in infancy are at greater risk of heart disease compared to those reared on the breast.
It seems that where infant nutrition is concerned, there is no shortage of journalists keen to hit the bottle, and I am no exception. While I concede that my gender precludes me from ever having to face the challenges that breast-feeding can bring, the current bottle-feeding frenzy in the press did seem to me to be an ideal opportunity to explore why breast really is best. Breast milk is, after all, a natural, fresh and unprocessed food, and one that is designed to supply human babies with the nutrients, enzymes, antibodies, growth factors and hormones required for their optimal health, growth and development. In many respects, mother’s milk is quite different infant feeds formed from the freeze-drying of milk designed for baby cows.
One important difference between human and cow’s milk is the types of protein they contain. Children are generally more likely to have a hard time digesting the proteins found in formula feeds, and the intolerance this can give rise to is believed to be a frequent factor in colic. My experience in practice is also that unwanted reactions to cow’s milk-based formula are also a common cause of infantile eczema. There is some evidence also that cow’s milk sensitivity can be a factor in asthma, and some research suggests that breast-feeding helps protect against this condition.
Another potential problem with formula-feeds is that they tend to be relatively bereft of the omega-3 fats (such as docosahexaenoic acid) that are believed to be important for the growth and development of the young brain. It is the relative abundance of these fats in mother’s milk that is thought to explain, at least in part, why breast-fed children seem to enjoy benefits in terms of enhanced IQ, reading comprehension and mathematical ability later on in childhood.
Still more benefits for babies come from breast milk in the form of antibodies and immune cells that appear to offer some protection from a variety of infections including respiratory tract infections, ear infections and urinary tract infections (cystitis and kidney infections). Studies show that breast-feeding has some capacity to protect other conditions too, including childhood obesity, and type 1 diabetes and bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. When it comes to giving babies the best nutritional start in life, it seems that mother’s milk delivers a sucker punch.