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Breast Milk Better Than Supplemented Baby Formula

Breast Milk Benefits

Adding docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, to commercial infant formulas is beneficial, but breast milk is still the superior nutrition source for infants.

In a study published in the September/October journal Child Development, infants receiving Enfamil formula supplemented with DHA performed better on a cognitive test than infants who were given formula without the additive. The test used in the study measured a form of problem solving that has proven to be an indicator of higher IQ and vocabulary later in childhood.

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DHA is a naturally occurring substance in breast milk, but is not included in most commercially prepared baby formulas. DHA helps build connections among neurons in the developing brain of a child and may speed brain processing. Some studies also suggest that DHA may bolster the brain’s prefrontal cortex, making it easier for infants to shift their focus from one problem to another, allowing them to tackle more complicated tasks.

Supplemented baby formulas have been in use since 2001 in an attempt by manufacturers to make it as close to natural breast milk as possible. Cow’s milk, the basis of most baby formulas, is low DHA. Previous studies have not shown harmful side effects from the additives, but the research on proven benefits is mixed.

Experts, including those from the American Academy of Pediatrics, are concerned that manufacturing supplemented baby formula may dissuade mothers from attempting breastfeeding as the primary source of nutrition for infants up to six months of age, the recommendation set forth by the U.S. Surgeon General. Human breast milk contains many factors besides DHA that support infant development, including protection against infection, improvements to visual acuity, and reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Studies also indicate benefits for the mother, including a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression.

Sources for this article include: WomensHealth.gov (a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services) and the American Academy of Pediatrics.