Within the past decade of working with breastfeeding women and their families, I have come across many people who have given their babies an occasional bottle of formula, a bottle before bedtime or have been told to just “give their baby a top up or supplement with formula” if needed now and then.  Sometimes women are told to give a bottle of formula instead of going through suggestions of how to build her supply and/or assess if supplementing is even needed or a woman will give her baby a bottle of formula one night if she would like to go out for a few hours.  There have been many circumstances where I have heard a well meaning relative try to convince a mum that she does not have enough milk and it’s time to head out to the shop to give a bottle of formula…

Often times families and health professionals do not have an understanding of how “just” one or two bottles of formula can dramatically change the infant’s gut.  People who work in health care are now well aware of the importance of gut health and how it relates to virtually all aspects of our overall well-being.  Doctor’s now frequently prescribe probiotics to patients who have had antibiotics, acknowledging the importance of getting people’s gut bacteria back in check following a round of medication.  Yet even though there are numerous studies showing how formula affects an infant’s gut, many people continue to be very nonchalant about “just a few bottles here or there” of formula.  Women with twins or triplets are often told they will not have enough milk so start thinking about supplementing with formula for a short time. (*Are you pregnant with multiples? Many multiple mums are able to exclusively breastfeed!! Click here for more info.)  So what is the deal with one or two (or a few occasional) bottles? How does it affect an infant’s digestive system? What are some of the consequences of giving a bottle of formula now and then?

  1. Breastfed and formula fed babies have different gut flora.  Your gut flora are the microorganism which live within your digestive system.  These include bacteria and fungi and affect all aspects of our health and immune system. “Dynamic balances exist between the gastrointestinal microbiota, host physiology, and diet that directly influence the initial acquisition, developmental succession, and eventual stability of the gut ecosystem “ [1]  Research shows that breast-fed newborns have been demonstrated to carry a more stable and uniform population when compared to the formula-fed ones [2] even after just a small exposure to formula [3]. Even introducing just one bottle affects the lining of the infant’s gut, changing the flora within their digestive systems.
  2. Bifidobacterium can be found up to 300% higher in breastfed babies! This is massive! The “good” bacteria in our guts is incredibly important, so important that some formula companies are adding one or two different strains of the “good” bacteria.  What they don’t tell you on the formula can is that there are literally trillions of bacteria floating around our digestive system and over seven hundred strains of bacteria have been found within breastmilk.  The one strain of a bacteria they add to formula is NOTHING compared to what is found in mother’s milk.
  3. ttm-main-pictureThe bacteria within our gut not only affects our immune system and our bodies ability to fight infection and illness but it also affects our brains.  “Researchers have known that the brain sends signals to the gut, which is why stress and other emotions can contribute to gastrointestinal symptoms. This study shows what has been suspected but until now had been proved only in animal studies: that signals travel the opposite way as well” [4].
  4. A baby who has been given just one bottle of formula will then take up to four weeks for their gut to go back to the norm for an exclusively breastfed baby.  So “just” one or two bottles ends up affecting the gut health of your baby for up to one month.  This is a long length of time for anyone, especially an infant who does not have a fully functioning immune system yet.
  5. Although there is much that is misunderstood about allergies and food intolerances, it is clear that for babies who are very susceptible to allergies, they can be affected by a single exposure to the protein in cow’s milk.  This can lead to disrupting the lining of the gut and creating an inflammatory response which then leads to an intolerance or allergy for the baby.  “Exclusive consumption of breastmilk facilitates the early maturation of the intestinal barrier and provides a passive barrier to potentially antigenic molecules until the baby’s own natural barriers develop” (Riordan and Wambach 2010, p. 139).  Introducing one bottle of formula puts your baby out of the “exclusive” breastfed baby category and into the “supplemented” baby category which affects the health of their gut.Riordan, J & Wamback, K 2010, Breastfeeding and human lactation, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Boston.

 “Just” one or two bottles of formula can be a big deal.

Here are some alternatives to a bottle “here or there”…

-expressing your breastmilk if you need to be separated from your baby

-Are you tempted to give a bottle of formula before bedtime because you are exhausted? Have a read of my article on how to get more sleep for different ideas on how to get some sleep as a breastfeeding mum.

-seeking donor breastmilk. Please head here for information on informed milk sharing and the possible risks/benefits involved with choosing donor milk: http://www.eatsonfeetsresources.org/

-simply hanging out with your baby and breastfeeding on demand. Your life does not have to stop because you are breastfeeding! Bring your baby with you like my husband and I did with ours…they are only little once. Enjoy them.  😉

*If you are concerned about your milk supply and are worried you do not have enough, click HERE for information on how to know your baby is getting enough. 

***Have you fed your baby a bottle of formula here or there and after reading this article are now freaking out?! Don’t freak out! There are things you can do…

1. Start making and drinking milk kefir. Many people have not heard of milk kefir but it is something different cultures around the world have been making for centuries. It is similar to yoghurt as it’s a cultured dairy product, but you drink it. There are hundreds of different strains of bacteria in this drink. It is made with some kefir grains (not actually grains at all so an unfortunate name) and milk. You put the grains in the milk, leave it out on the counter to culture for 24 hours, strain out the grains, put the kefir in the fridge, drink. Repeat. Simple as that!!

2. Do not have access to this? Head to your local store to buy some probiotics. Alternatively you can get some UNSWEETENED yoghurt to eat. The important thing to note here is that things you buy from a store will only have a few different strains of bacteria in them. Milk kefir that you make has hundreds of different strains and these will change depending on the environment you are in and the milk you are using. My family and I use milk from an organic biodynamic local farm but you can make this drink with any type of milk. You can also add fermented foods into your diet. Including cabbage, chutneys, fruit etc. My video on this will be coming soon! 

3. Looking for kefir grains? Type in “milk kefir grains” and your location into Google. When I first moved here and did not know anyone who had grains I simply found someone online who mailed some to me.

4. Would you like to try milk kefir but do not want to make it? Depending on where you live you may be able to find it in your local health food shop. Making it at home is easy, cheap and awesome though so be brave! Try making some!! Mini The Milk LOVES milk kefir. If your breastfeeder is too young for dairy just drink it yourself, the beneficial bacteria will go through your milk to your baby. Do you have older kids who hate the sour taste? Turn it into a smoothie with banana and honey! Yum!!

Watch me in this video explaining how to make milk kefir!

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The World Health Organisation recommends the following for babies if their mother cannot breastfeed. The order is in preference from most preferred to least preferred; expressed breastmilk from the infant’s own mother, donated breastmilk from a healthy wet-nurse or human milk bank, formula. *Note that formula is the LAST recommended option.