Does breast-feeding make better babies?

Breast or Pump: Does It Matter?
The working mother's accessory: a breast pump.
The working mother's accessory: a breast pump.
Spike Mafford/Photodisc/Getty Images

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breast-feeding for an infant for at least six months, yet most women don't reach this milestone. That's because the typical maternity leave in the United States is 12 weeks. In order to return to work, many women begin using breast pumps to express milk, which keeps their supply flowing and provides bottles full of the magical elixir of breast milk. Some women who have trouble breast-feeding may always use pumped breast milk to feed their babies.

When the breast milk doesn't come straight from the breast, it's possible that it may not have as many benefits. Take, for example, obesity. Studies show that breast-fed babies have a lower risk of being overweight; scientists say that breast-feeding makes a woman more attuned to when a child is full so that she doesn't overfeed him or her. In one study, babies who were fed with bottles tended to be overfed, no matter if the bottle was full of formula or breast milk [source: Temple University]. And again, it's impossible to tell if a lower risk of obesity in breast-fed children is due to the breast milk or to another factor in the child's upbringing.

In another study, which suggested that breast-fed babies coped better with stress than bottle-fed babies, researchers took pains to emphasize that the results may not be due to breast milk, but to the role of mother-child interaction in shaping neural pathways [source: BMJ Specialty Journals]. Like Michael Kramer, these researchers used interactions between animals as the basis for their finding.

Any woman, breast-feeding or no, can spend intimate time with her newborn, the kind that may facilitate these benefits, though breast-feeding and bottle-feeding women could likely use more support in their decisions. Bottle-feeding women are often made to feel guilty for their choice not to breast-feed, while breast-feeding women face criticism for feeding a child in public. Like most decisions related to parenting, the research doesn't show that there's a right or wrong decision when it comes to feeding.

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