The Medical Minute: Breastfeeding, the original natural food

August 11, 2004

By John Messmer
Penn State Hershey Medical Center

Popularity of natural foods and medical products has been high for many years. In spite of the trend, only about 70 percent of American women feed their new babies the most natural way, by breastfeeding. At five months, only a third of mothers continue the practice. With the exception of the British Isles, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy, almost all women in the world breastfeed their infants at birth.

It is not that formula is bad. Manufacturers have extensive research in infant nutrition and today's formula provides good nutrition. However, even the formula companies will tell you "breastfeeding is best." The breast is specifically designed to produce food for newborn infants. Breast milk is more easily digested than formula, and its nutrients are more easily absorbed. Maternal antibodies breast-fed babies receive contribute to fewer ear infections, less risk of diarrhea, and increased resistance to urinary and intestinal infections. There is data to suggest breastfeeding reduces the risk of inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and diabetes. Because iron in breast milk is absorbed better, anemia in breast-fed babies is rare. Breast-fed babies are less likely to be overweight and might have an edge on brain development.

Mothers who breastfeed have less bleeding following delivery and lower risk of anemia from blood loss. They also have less risk of breast and ovarian cancer and tend to replace calcium into their bones more efficiently.

Some women think formula is more convenient since fathers cannot do the feeding when babies are breast-fed. Consider the inconvenience of bottle feeding: mixing formula, heating it to the proper temperature, refrigerating the unused amount, carrying bottles everywhere the baby goes and handling disposal of empty cans. This situation compared to breastfeeding: mother's milk is being produced constantly, is always there, always the right temperature and does not require a bag full of extra equipment. An option if dad would like to participate is to pump and store breast milk. This option also is particularly useful for women who will be returning to employment. With so many women in the work force, many businesses will accommodate nursing breaks when day care is available on or near the workplace. Even if this is not possible, breastfeeding from birth then adding formula later still is a great idea.

Breastfeeding saves money. Regular infant formula costs approximately $1,200 per year. Breast milk is free and is the only food a baby needs for the first six months of life. Breast milk production uses as many calories as an hour of exercise. This can help a woman lose some of her extra pregnancy weight if she avoids overeating.

Physical contact is important in a baby's development. Many women find the time they spend nursing their babies particularly special for the closeness they experience from skin-to-skin contact with their baby. This can be a quiet and restful time for a mother.

Mothers of twins or triplets may find nursing more of a challenge, but help is available through LaLeche League and through breastfeeding support provided by hospitals and on the Web at

There are a few circumstances in which breastfeeding is not recommended. Drugs taken by the nursing mother enter breast milk in small amounts. Most prescribed and over-the-counter drugs are safe, but radioactive isotopes, drugs that interfere with metabolism, cancer drugs, illicit drugs and a few others should not be used while nursing. Mothers infected with HIV virus or active tuberculosis should not nurse.

The goal of Healthy People 2000 was to have at least 75 percent of mothers breastfeed initially and 50 percent to continue to age six months. If these goals are met, society will save an estimated $4 billion annually in reduced health-care expenditures, costs of supplied formula for government-sponsored programs and household savings.

For more information on the original, all-natural way to feed your baby, go to or

For those who would like in-depth information on breastfeeding, a free, detailed course is available at

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 20, 2009