The food conglomerate Nestlé has for some time attracted criticism for its marketing of baby-milk formulas in the developing world, where the diarrhoeal diseases caused by making up such feeds with contaminated water is 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 £1m donation. More bad news for producers of formula feeds came this month, with US research revealing that bottle-fed babies are significantly more likely to die in the first year of life than those who are breastfed; and the coverage of a British study suggesting that adults who were formula-fed are at greater risk of heart disease compared to those reared on the breast.
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 of breastfeeding, the current bottle-feeding frenzy is an ideal opportunity to explore why breast really is best. Breast milk is natural, fresh and unprocessed, and it is designed to supply babies with the nutrients, enzymes, antibodies, growth factors and hormones required for their optimal health, growth and development.
Mothers' milk is quite different from 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 more likely to have a hard time digesting the proteins found in formula feeds. This is believed to be a frequent factor in colic. My experience in practice is also that 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 breastfeeding helps protect against this condition.
Formula feeds also tend to be relatively bereft of the omega-3 fats that are believed to be important for the growth and development of the young brain. The abundance of these fats in mothers' milk is thought to explain, in part, why breastfed children seem to enjoy enhanced IQ, reading comprehension and mathematical ability.
Still more benefits for babies come from breast milk in the form of the antibodies and immune cells in breast milk appear to offer protection from respiratory tract infections, ear infections and urinary-tract infections. Breastfeeding can protect against other conditions, such as childhood obesity, 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 mothers' milk delivers a sucker punch.