From evolution until the 19th century, there was only one form of nutrition for newborns: they were breastfed, either by the mother or – if that was not possible – by a wet nurse.
Bottle-feeding was first introduced at the beginning of industrialisation, and since the 1920s, infant formula based on cow’s milk has been industrially produced. The proportion of bottle-fed babies rose steadily until it reached its peak in Western countries in the 1970s.
At that time, bottled milk was considered safe and practical, while breastfeeding was portrayed negatively: It restricted personal freedom, was incompatible with work and ruined the figure. Breastfeeding was also considered a sign of low social status and even unsafe from a health point of view after chemicals were found in some women’s breast milk.
This changed in the 1970s, when biologically and psychologically valuable aspects of breastfeeding started being discovered. By the turn of the millennium, the ratio had turned around again. Since then, there have been more breastfed than bottle-fed babies.
Many mothers are unsure about breastfeeding at first. They often cannot ask their own mothers or relatives for advice because they have not breastfed themselves. Today, health visitors and midwives take on this role.
Breast milk starts off the baby’s immune system
Breast milk is ideally adapted to the physical needs of an infant. Colostrum, the first secretion from the mammary glands after birth, teems with antibodies. This triggers the formation of the baby’s immune system. The newborn is still susceptible to illness, and the colostrum serves to start building resistance. However, the milk that comes later still contains many antibodies against pathogens.
What’s more, mother’s milk also delivers probiotics such as bifidobacteria and lactobacillus. These bacteria help to build healthy gut flora in the baby to support their immune system, and affect growth and the child’s body composition. One study even found that breastfeeding may halve the risk of dying from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The baby’s energy and nutrient requirements are optimally met by breast milk. Milk composition changes over time, constantly adjusting to the baby’s needs as it develops.
Breastfeeding also trains the senses of taste. Unlike formula, breast milk always tastes slightly different, depending on what the mother has eaten and drunk beforehand. Studies show that breastfed children try new foods more often later on and are more likely to reach for fruit and vegetables, for example, than bottle-fed children. Last but not least, breast milk is free, always available and does not need to be heated. In addition, women who breastfed their children are at a reduced risk of breast cancer.
If toxic chemicals were found in women’s breastmilk in the 20th century, it contains even more now. Persistent organic pollutants (POP), heavy metals, pesticides and other contaminants have been found in human milk. Many of those toxins are unavoidable. They depend on our environment, accumulate in a mother’s tissue and pass on to the baby via the milk. Knowing this means that we can do something about it. We can pay attention to what we allow into our body, onto our skin and hair, and into our homes. That way, we can considerably reduce the toxic load on our bodies. Regardless of the contamination of human milk, a 2008 review found that on balance, breast is still best.
Breast milk was long thought to prevent children from contracting allergies at an early age. Especially in families where allergies such as asthma, hay fever or dermatitis frequently occur, breastfed children have a better chance of avoiding these problems. The jury is still out, however, as new research was unable to confirm that.
Bottle-fed babies grow just as well
The boom that breastfeeding has seen since the end of the 20th century also has its downsides. Today, breastfeeding is often presented not just as essential for a newborn’s health and growth but also as the only way to strengthen the bond between mother and baby. This puts pressure on many women who cannot or do not want to breastfeed their child, making them feel patronised and judged.
However, there is no evidence proving that bottle-fed children have any more problems in terms of growth or behaviour than breastfed children. The baby microbiome – and with it the infant’s immune system – will grow quite happily, too. It may just take a little longer.
There is no doubt that physical closeness is essential for babies. However, it makes no difference whether the baby, lying in your arms, gets a bottle or the breast. The bottle also has one great advantage: it can be given by the father.
If the father also takes care of the feeding, the child can build up an equally close relationship with both parents. This allows the mother greater freedom -a crucial aspect in modern societies.
Weaning: a big step towards independence
The question of how long one should breastfeed children is answered differently in different societies. While women in African tribes may breastfeed for three to four and a half years, this time is much reduced in modern societies. For women in industrialised countries, breastfeeding time is restricted by the available maternity leave. This can be as short as three months in the US, while it is one year in most European countries.
Some mothers feel restricted by breastfeeding. They are unable to work or forced to work less and have little time to take care of themselves and their personal needs. The time and energy that can be invested in relationships with their older children, their partner or friends is also limited.
It is the greatest thing in the world for babies to drink from their mother’s breast and have her all to themselves, but the separation from the mother’s breast is a big step towards the independence of both mother and child.
Problems with breastfeeding
Although breastfeeding is what nature intended, it is not always straightforward and much as you may want to breastfeed your baby sometimes it does not work. One common problem is a lack of milk. If the baby’s basic needs cannot be met, women may feel uncomfortable and incompetent in their new role and, without support and clarification of the causes, they give up the goal of feeding their child with breast milk. Other problems can be an initial swelling of the mammary glands, milk engorgement, mastitis and sore nipples. If you experience problems, make sure to inform your health visitor or midwife as soon as possible.
Breastfeeding cafés and centres are dotted all around the UK. They are great places to meet like-minded women and get advice both from peers and health practitioners. Your local council can put you in touch with a Sure Start Children’s Centre or Family Information Service, which often have lists of local breastfeeding groups and activities.
Visit the NHS website for helpline numbers and links to websites.