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Breast-Feeding vs. Bottle-Feeding

Now here’s a topic that’s guaranteed to raise the ire of those who are committed to either position. I’ve enjoyed the impassioned debate, largely because I’m thrilled to see people on both sides who are committed to their children’s nutrition. I’m concerned, however, when parents are made to feel like failures if they do not follow a particular approach.

Both sides have been guilty of such cruel propaganda. Adamant breast milk advocates have warned (inaccurately) that bottle-fed babies do not emotionally bond to their mothers as well. (This has been especially painful to adoptive mothers and others who, for biological reasons, cannot nurse their babies.)

Infant formula manufacturers have told mothers in third-world countries that breast milk wasn’t as good for their babies as the commercial product — which is also a lie. In fact, this has led to infant malnutrition and diarrhea as poor parents, who used their meager funds to buy the unneeded formula to help their babies, prepared it in unsanitary conditions and with contaminated water. (This has become an even more complex issue in recent years since HIV can be passed from mother to child through breast milk in those babies who are born healthy but whose mothers have an HIV infection.)

So let’s put the emotions of breast-feeding and bottle-feeding aside and deal with the facts. First, with today’s commercial formulas for newborns, you don’t have to feel that you’re depriving your baby of any necessary nutrients. (Note that feeding your child cow’s milk is not an adequate substitute for human milk or formula.) An average bottle-fed baby will thrive as well as a breast-fed baby. So adequate nutrition — the biggest concern — shouldn’t be an issue.

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. If the mother is well-fed, breast milk is an idea diet for a newborn. It has all a baby needs for growth during the first few months of life, with the possible exception of fluoride and Vitamin D, which are easily given as supplements. Talk to your pediatrician about that.

Breast-feeding has some biochemical advantages as well. Even though your baby may be nursing soon after birth, he’s not getting any of your milk, which won’t be produced by your body until about the third day. Instead, you’re feeding him a yellowish liquid known as colostrum, which seems to transfer some of your own disease-preventing antibodies to him. This may protect him against certain viruses.

Also, a breast-feeding mother doesn’t have to be worried about her baby being allergic to her milk. Breast milk is sterile, readily available (to the mother, at least), and you never have to worry about its temperature. It can also be manually expressed and refrigerated, so that it’s available when the mother isn’t around.

Although many (but not all) babies will try to nurse immediately after birth, their efforts meet with varying success. Extracting milk from a breast takes a bit of coordination. Bottles present less of a problem that way. An experienced nurse will be able to share some tips to help your baby get the hang of it without becoming too frustrated. Don’t be surprised if it takes him a few tries to become a successful breast-feeder.

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You may also find that your baby has trouble “disconnecting” from your breast when he’s through or when you want to switch him to the other side. If you simply pull him off you’ll not only frustrate him, you’ll find it rather painful. Instead, gently insert a finger between his lips and your breast to break the vacuum.

Many women find breast-feeding a warm, soothing or even erotic experience. It is a special time for them to feel close to their babies and revel in their new relationship. Others find it a frustrating, exhausting, and occasionally painful process. As the weeks go on, they find themselves resenting the constant demands from their babies and the changes in their bodies. They may need to return to work within several weeks following their delivery, and may not have a place to express and store their milk during the day.

There are numerous books to help mothers cope with these problems. The most important thing to remember is that deciding now to breast-feed your baby, or being unable to do so, does not make you a bad parent! In fact, worrying too much about your decision is much more likely to lead to problems, because you’ll feel unnecessarily guilty and anxious. Also remember that it’s your body, so it’s your choice. Don’t feel pressured or bullied by anyone, including your spouse, parents or physician, or a formula manufacturer.

There are advantages and disadvantages to bottle-feeding as well. (That’s actually a misnomer, since parents who express breast milk also use bottles.) Commercial formula is one of the great equalizers — fathers can give it to their babies as easily as mothers can. So can grandparents, baby-sitters, and others who want to get in on the act.

One of the advantages of bottle-feeding is that it allows fathers to spend more time caring for their baby. This isn’t just a matter of family efficiency or fairness. The time spent feeding a baby, like the time spent with the mother during prenatal checkups and labor and delivery, allows fathers to feel more like an integral and needed part of their child’s life from the very beginning. That not only helps the father-child relationship, it can prevent feelings of jealously and resentment as well.

Many first-time parents who use a formula choose the brand that they saw being used in their hospital. They interpret its selection of that particular brand as a tacit endorsement of the product’s superior quality. After all, how many television commercial for pain relievers have you see that say something like, “The brand hospitals use the most”?

Bear in mind that formula makers, like pain-reliever and disposable-diaper manufacturers, are acutely aware of this tendency, and will offer hospitals extremely low prices in the hope that parents will stick with the same brand over the coming months. So don’t feel that you have to use the same brand of formula or diapers or anything else your hospital used. The fact that they selected those brands doesn’t mean they’re necessarily better for your baby. More likely, it’s a testament to the skill and savvy of the manufacturer’s marketing departments.

Breast-Feeding vs. Bottle-Feeding

Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D

Dr. Lawrence Kutner is a nationally known clinical psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School, where he's co-founder and co-director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media. He's the author of five books, including: Parent & Child: Getting Through to Each Other; Pregnancy and Your Baby's First Year; Toddlers and Preschoolers; Your School-Age Child; and Making Sense of Your Teenager. All articles appearing here originally were published on Used with permission.

APA Reference
Kutner, L. (2018). Breast-Feeding vs. Bottle-Feeding. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.