Infant Feeding—What Is the Best Method?
IN MANY countries, prospective mothers face the question: How am I going to feed my baby—from the breast or from the bottle?
Generations ago this question seldom, if ever, arose. Practically all mothers breast-fed their babies. There was no really safe alternative. If, for some reason, a mother could not breast-feed her baby, another woman, called a wet nurse, was found to do it. In some areas of the world wet nurses are still used.
Modern Trend in Infant Feeding
In countries such as the United States, however, there has been a rapid change in the way infants are fed. Giving babies a prepared formula in a bottle has become the preferred method.
For example, at the turn of this century close to 100 percent of any group of new mothers in the United States were breast-feeding their babies. But by 1946 the number of breast-feeding mothers had dropped to 38 percent. In 1956 the number decreased to 21 percent. And in 1966, the last year for which good statistics are available, the number of new mothers breast-feeding their babies fell to only 18 percent! In some places now, almost all mothers bottle-feed their infants.
According to the May 1973 issue of Saturday Review of the Sciences, in “the world’s poor countries,” too, there has been “a dramatic decline of maternal nursing in recent years.” In one such country, it was estimated, the milk of 32,000 cows would be required to compensate simply in quantity for the milk that mothers were no longer providing their children by nursing.
The revolution in infant feeding has occurred within the memory of many persons still living. Commenting on this, Psychology Today, for June 1968, observed: “Just 25 years ago in rural Mississippi, breast feeding in church was acceptable. And 80 years ago in Indiana, upper-class women naturally took their babies to afternoon parties to nurse them as needed.”
But today many persons grow up without ever seeing a mother suckle her child. Even if a new mother is interested in breast-feeding, she may be ignorant as to just how to go about it.
Why the Change?
A principal reason for the change in infant feeding is the attitude in hospitals today. Dr. Jean Mayer, professor of nutrition at Harvard University, observes: “In male-dominated hospitals, breast feeding is officially discouraged. Unless the new mother has clearly signified her will to breast feed, she is given a shot of estrogens before she is even out of anesthesia so as to ‘dry her up.’”
This preference in the medical profession for bottle-feeding is due largely to convenience in caring for mother and child. “Some obstetricians actively advocate bottle-feeding because breast-feeding mothers take up too much of their time with follow-up consultations,” Newsweek of January 12, 1970, reports. Then, too, the improvements of commercially processed milk formulas have been a factor in the advocating of bottle-feeding. Palatable and digestible mixtures of milk, water and various sugars have been achieved, which, it is claimed, substitute well for mother’s milk.
Since bottle-feeding is “modern” and supposedly “scientific,” some mothers seemingly view it as a status symbol, and breast-feeding as old-fashioned. San Francisco clinic director Dr. David E. Smith notes: “It’s almost impossible to persuade a black or Mexican-American mother to breast-feed, because they consider it to be a lower-class practice—it’s what their poor relatives do.”
And it is true, bottle-feeding often does fit the modern city life-style better. A nursing mother must be available almost around the clock to feed her child. An infant on the bottle, on the other hand, can be fed by someone else, as mother cares for a secular job or steps out for an evening with friends.
The current popularity of bottle-feeding would suggest that it is better than, or at least as good as, breast-feeding. But is this so? What food is best for the infant?
The White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health recently concluded: “Breast milk is the perfect food for the baby’s nutritional needs and development. It is the most natural way to feed babies.”
Similarly, Current Therapy 1970, a respected medical volume, observes: “For several reasons, it has been well established that breast feeding is the ideal method of infant feeding for the first few months of life. The physician should encourage this practice.” The Encyclopædia Britannica concurs, saying: “The ideal food for the young infant is human milk. It supplies all of the nutrients in amounts and variety necessary for good growth and development.”
Mother’s milk is specifically designed for infants. Thus Dr. I. Newton Kugelmass, writing in Current Therapy 1967, said: “Human milk is ideal for the baby, cow’s milk for the calf. There is no substitute for breast milk.” The noted Mayo professor emeritus Dr. Walter Alvarez explains: “Cow’s milk is not suited to a human infant’s digestive tract, and hence it has to be diluted and made into a ‘formula.’”
Yes, human milk is a superior food for infants, and few, if any, physicians would argue otherwise. But is breast-feeding really so much superior to bottle-feeding that it should be encouraged?
Differences of Opinion
Some physicians do not seem to think so. They apparently believe that improvements in bottle-feeding during the past three decades have made it as beneficial to the infant as breast-feeding. When directions are followed, Pediatrician William E. Homan asserts, “bottle-fed babies are neither healthier nor less healthy, physically or emotionally than a comparable group of breast-fed babies.” Is this true?
There are sharp differences of opinion, however. Dr. David Reuben claims: “By the age of twenty-one, it is difficult to tell the difference physically between the football player who was brought up on cow’s milk and the one who was nursed by his mother.” But what about the health of infants before reaching maturity?
This may well be a different story. For the Medical Tribune of August 16, 1972, draws attention to “the repeated observation that mortality in breast-fed infants is significantly lower than in those artificially fed.” It is noteworthy, therefore, that Dr. Paul Gyorgy, one of the world’s leading authorities on infant feeding, recently called the bottle-feeding fad “criminal.”
Expressing a similar opinion, Dr. John S. Miller, as chief of obstetrics and gynecology, French Hospital, San Francisco, recently said: “I cannot know if breast feeding will ever again become the preferred method of feeding babies in the United States. I do know that we are beginning to learn the frightful price we are paying in allowing the dairy and baby food industries to dictate custom to us in this respect.”
What does this obstetrician mean? What are the possible dangers of bottle-feeding that are avoided by breast-feeding?
Right Composition of Human Milk
As already noted, human milk is ideally designed for human babies; cow’s milk is not. For example, the type of protein the two milks contain is different. Human milk is easily assimilated and is almost completely utilized by the infant. The protein in cow’s milk, on the other hand, forms large, dense, hard-to-digest curds. For this reason cow’s milk is diluted in a formula in an effort to make it as similar to human milk as possible.
The fatty acids in human milk are not the same as those in cow’s milk. And some doctors believe that those in cow’s milk are not as good for infants, perhaps adversely affecting blood cholesterol levels. In later life, it is suggested, these cholesterol levels may be a factor in the development of hardening of the arteries, one of the major causes of stroke and heart disease.
Also, human milk contains a much lower mineral content than cow’s milk; for example, cow’s milk has four or five times as much sodium as human milk does. Harvard University’s Dr. Jean Mayer observes that this is “a fact some scientists consider very significant. High-salt diets in infancy have been linked to hypertension in laboratory animals.” Dr. Mayer adds: “If the situation applies to man, it could be that exposing infants to higher concentrations of sodium in milk (and baby foods) might be a factor in the current prevalence of hypertension, which affects 20 million Americans.”
As more research is done, it becomes clear that human milk is of just the right composition for babies, obviously being designed that way by an all-wise Creator. And there is increasing evidence that the use of substitutes can result in harm.
Human Milk a Protection
It has been observed that human milk is a real protection against illness in infants. Statistical evidence seems to support this. In her recent book, Infant Feeding, Dr. Marvis Gunther writes: “Almost every survey which compares the relation of infection to the method of feeding has shown that the bottle-fed baby is more liable to illness.”
In this connection, the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health concluded recently that breast milk “provides protection against infection”, particularly intestinal disorders and respiratory disease. Colostrum, the yellowish watery fluid secreted during the first few days following birth, is especially vital to the infant in protecting it against illness.
Studies have also revealed that breast-fed babies are less prone to develop allergies. Basing conclusions on a study of 1,377 infants, Dr. E. Robbins Kimball, an Evanston, Illinois, pediatrician, said: “It would seem that introduction of non-species specific milk is sensitizing the infant to the development of allergies . . . both currently and in the future.” The well-known Dr. Walter Alvarez observed: “Every time I see some adult who says he cannot touch milk without breaking out with the hives, or suffering from some severe form of indigestion, I ask, and usually I learn, that his mother refused to breast-feed him, and immediately put him on a formula.”
An especially tragic fact is that in the United States each year some 10,000 to 20,000 infants die suddenly. The cause of these so-called “crib deaths” is unknown. But, according to Dr. Marvis Gunther, the “risk is greater among the bottle-fed.” It has been suggested that some viral infection or an intense allergic reaction to cow’s milk could be responsible. This may be something for prospective parents to consider when they are deciding how they are going to feed their infant.
Benefits to the Mother
Is breast-feeding also a protection to the mother? It can be in a number of ways.
First of all, it is evidently a protection against breast cancer. In a study of cancer among the Bantu in southern Africa, Dr. Charles Marks reports: “Breast cancer is extremely low in the primitive Bantu tribes in comparison with the European in Africa, and this may be associated with a particularly long period of lactation, with the Bantu mother breast-feeding her child for two years or more.”
Significantly, too, in its publication 101 Questions About Cancer, the American Cancer Society says: “Mothers who breast feed show less cases of cancer of the breast.”
Another benefit of breast-feeding is that it can reduce bleeding of the mother following delivery. This is because the sucking of a baby, when put to the breast soon after birth, stimulates the mother’s uterus to contract. This is a fact to which parents who have respect for God’s law concerning blood may want to give attention, especially since some doctors are prone to want to give a blood transfusion when there is considerable blood loss.
Still another benefit is that breast-feeding tends to postpone the resumption of ovulation and the menstrual cycle for about seven to fifteen months. Thus babies are spaced apart naturally, and a nursing mother is able to care for one baby before another is conceived.
And there is yet another possible benefit. During nursing the mother’s pituitary gland produces the hormone prolactin, which, experiments with animals indicate, may cause the nursing mother to feel more “motherly” toward the baby.
The Best Method
Clearly, the way that man’s Creator designed mothers to feed their young is the best method. Breast-fed babies are indeed the best-fed babies, and mothers are benefited too.
Yet, at the same time, improved milk formulas have been of great benefit. When death, illness or some other inability of the mother has made it impossible or difficult for her to nurse, bottle-feeding has been utilized to raise her infant. But this substitute method, admittedly, is not the best. To counteract the trend, Switzerland offers a financial reward to mothers if they breast-feed for ten weeks.
How parents choose to feed their young infant is a personal matter, but being informed on the subject can be of assistance to them in making a good choice.