The Number of Ingredients in Breastmilk Vs. Formula Will Surprise You


I love when I can write about happy things -- like the cute WIC website or nursing moms gathering all together -- I like the fun stuff, I really do. But sometimes I have to talk about tough things, too -- things like breastfeeding. This is a topic that's difficult to talk about because it kicks up so many emotions, pitting moms who may feel guilt and depression about the issue on one side against moms who may be proud and sometimes even arrogant about it on the other.

Thanks to a student project for the Breastfeeding Course for Health Care Providers, for once I have the opportunity to just talk about breast milk -- not the choice to breastfeed, not moms who may or may not breastfeed -- but just the liquid itself. The students put together the list you see here (I had to shrink it so it would fit). The column on the left shows the ingredients in breast milk. And on the right? Ingredients in formula. As you can see, breast milk contains an amazingly long list of ingredients.

One of my favorite things about breast milk is its ability to heal so many things. The live antibodies that help baby fight off diseases can even be used topically -- for cuts, the sinuses (yeah, up the nose!), ear infections, cure for pink eye, and even as acne control. I know that sounds crazy to some people, but the healing possibilities for breast milk are long and really awesome.

Even cooler, we've seen lab situations where breast milk helps protect newborns from E. coli (well, colostrol cells, those in colostrum). Not only that, the HAMLET cells found in a tummy full of breast milk can kill cancer cells -- up to 40 different types that we know of -- and, unlike many other treatments, does not harm any non-cancerous cells. Come on, that's just awesome.

My point is: Breast milk itself is an absolutely amazing substance. It's part of the reason why medical organizations strongly recommend that every mother breastfeed (or at least try). The stuff is good enough that even one feeding can make a huge difference for the newborn; and, the longer you go, the better. Even if the child is just getting one breast milk meal a day and the rest are formula, that's still very important and beneficial. It doesn't HAVE to be all or nothing (though there are some disadvantages to adding formula, both for the baby's tummy and your own supply). Any breast milk is better than none.

My point here isn't to ream on formula feeding. It's really not. My point is to say that formula is fabulous when it's needed. Despite my very numerous and passionate issues with the marketing and misinformation out there related to formula, I don't have issues with the product itself. In fact, the product itself can be a life-saver -- literally. And I fully believe that the scientists working to develop formula honestly care about the babies and try to do the best they possibly can to make product as good as possible.

But put the ingredients of breast milk and formula side-by-side, and breast milk wins by a long shot. No matter how hard scientists try, there's still so much about breast milk that we just don't know and cannot replicate. When it comes to discussions about breast milk and formula, it's not about the moms who use them: It's about two liquids, one that is trying its damnedest to be the other but just isn't quite there yet. And it just takes one look at that list above to see that while we've come a hell of a long way since the condensed milk and corn syrup days, we've still got a long way to go.

Did you have any idea how many ingredients either contained?


Image via BC Baby Friendly Network

breastfeeding, formula, natural parenting


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hutch... hutchfam2007

breastmilk is amazing stuff. :)

Anna V Ilkka

Wahooo! Love this. Formula is for cans, cow milk is for baby cows. Human mammal milk is for baby humans...and for much longer than 6 weeks or 12 mos or 18 mos.

Baby led weaning is the best, so, will our society be willing to make this sacrifice for its children? We are working on the fourth generation of primarily canfed human mammals, willfully & ignorantly sacrificing years of mammal benefits of breastfeeding for mommy and baby for a paycheck or a cigarette.

April Clark

It is amazing stuff! I kind of wonder if their could be medical uses for everyone and not just babies.

Stacy Denomy

Breastmilk is awesome ! Having a son with food allergies, I had to do a total elimination diet while nursing him. I wonder if some "ingredients" are being left out of breastmilk and can change depending on the mothers diet ? Actually when I say that I mean some things ARE being left out of breastmilk and can change depending on mothers diet. lol I would love to see a study reflecting diet changes, interesting stuff !

ArmyW... ArmyWife8297

woo go breast milk.....i disagree with formula can be a life saver

pezch... pezcharlotte

I am sorry, but how can you armywife8297 disagree with formula being a life saver. I don't want to get into this argument again but there are some babies that refuse to breastfeed.  For example, I tried everything to get my daughter to breastfeed, she wouldn't do it. Thankfully I was able to pump for six months before my supply disappeared so she was able to get some breastmilk. But after my milk was gone, what do you expect me to have done? Argh.

Again, breastmilk is wonderful and should be the first option but formula is not just "for cans".

Canda... Candace88nov

I am so happy that this has been posted! I would love to start seeing changes in women and start breastfeeding their babies longer. 2 years I think should be how long you breastfeed your baby. After reading this how can  you call it weird????

nonmember avatar shelly

ArmyWife - I did NOT produce milk. I mean, not even a drop. My breasts never changed during pregnancy or after, whatsoever. NOTHING made me create milk. I'm serious about that. How can you say formula is not a lifesaver? My son would have starved to death without it!

Chandi Jones Sainsbury

I have to argue with armywife8297; formula CAN save lives. Not all mothers make milk (mine tried and tried but hers never came in), and not all kids are raised by their bio mothers. My little brother was adopted, came to my parents as a foster kid at 5 months old. What could my parents feed him? Formula. There's no magic ray gun to make people lactate at will. I was/am able to breastfeed both my kids, but refuse to judge people who feed their babies formula. I don't know their situation or what necessarily caused the choice. At least they aren't trying to force the babies to grow on cows' milk or something. It's absolutely great that there is a scientifically built choice in this day and age.

Cassandra Blackwell

@April Clark, I know that when my Husband cut his finger on a knife not to long ago, I put breastmilk on it, withing hours it was visibly healing, and was healed in 2 days what would have take twice as long to heal on its own or with anything else. I have used it for my sons skinned knees now that he is running, and have even drank a little of it myself when I has food poisoning! Its amazing what it does! My family calls it Liquid Gold for a reason! *I am still nursing my 17month old son*

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