Breast milk is nature’s intended and ideal form of nutrition for infants. It is a highly responsive living food that customizes itself to the specific needs of the baby and has unparalleled immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that offer lifelong protection to children against numerous illnesses and diseases.

Many studies have concluded that breast milk is unmatched in its benefits. One study, reported in the June 2013 issue of Neuroimage, found that exclusive breast feeding improved brain development in children “almost right off the bat” by increasing myelin content in the brain by an order of 20-30 percent compared to strictly formula-fed babies. The extra myelin growth was greatest in areas of the brain “associated with language, emotional function and cognition.” The benefits continued years later; researchers ran cognitive tests in the older children and found “increased language performance, visual reception and motor control performance.”

Breast Milk is Not ‘Just Food’

breastfeedingPerhaps the greatest misunderstanding about breast milk is that it’s ‘just food’, a substance that fills a hungry baby’s tummy for a few hours until the next feeding. Even though it’s the perfect food because it offers infants all the nutrients they need in just the right amounts, this is its most simple role. Breast milk is much more than that.

Breast milk is a highly sophisticated signaling system developed over millions of years that relays information to the baby to develop adequate metabolic, hypothalamic and immunologic programming that can affect their whole life. Formula interferes with this signaling and the effects are lifelong.

A 2009 review in Obstetrics and Gynecology entitled “The Risks of Not Breastfeeding for Mothers and Infants” stated that:

“Health outcomes differ substantially for mothers and infants who formula feed compared to those that breastfeed … For infants, not being breastfed [and being formula fed instead,] is associated with an increased incidence of infectious morbidity, including otitis media [ear infections], gastroenteritis, and pneumonia, as well as elevated risks of childhood obesity, type 1 and type 2 diabetes, leukemia and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).”

Breast Milk is Essential, Not a Bonus

The Obstetrics and Gynecology review also shed light on a prevalent but mistaken public perception – that “‘if breast is best’ then formula is implicitly ‘good’ or ‘normal’” and that “lactation is viewed as a bonus, like a multivitamin, that was helpful but not essential for infant health.”

The truth is that breast milk is necessary and compared to breast milk,
commercial formula is detrimental.

Even mainstream health organizations acknowledge the importance of breast milk. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding notes that several health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Nurse-Midwives, American Dietetic Association and American Public Health Association all recommend that most infants be breastfed for a minimum of one year, with the first six months exclusively breast milk.

The weight of the evidence is best summarized by the Lamaze International’s position paper “Breastfeeding is Priceless: No Substitute for Human Milk” when they conclude that “[t]he World Health Organization, health care associations, and government health agencies affirm the scientific evidence of the clear superiority of human milk and of the hazards of artificial milk products.”

Formula is Far From the Only Option 

When circumstances make breast feeding not possible or ideal, every effort should be made to determine the safest and healthiest course of action. The convenience of commercial formula makes it the automatic choice, but many other options provide superior nutrition. Guidelines established by The World Health Organization in their publication “Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding” list the options in order of what is healthiest:

  • breast milk from the child’s own mother
  • breast milk from a healthy wet nurse;
  • breast milk from a milk bank; and then 
  • breast milk substitute.

Each option is covered below in this order with special attention to safety, every mother’s chief consideration.


Wet Nurse

A wet nurse is a woman who breast feeds someone else’s child. While still common in other parts of the world and in the West up until the mid-19th Century, current western culture considers it culturally taboo. Wet nursing fell out of favor partly because doctors began to realize that certain diseases were being passed on to infants through breast milk. Today, careful screening through blood work can detect any diseases that may pose a health risk to the child, thus eliminating one of the biggest drawbacks to wet nursing.

Well-established websites such as Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies are dedicated to helping mothers understand the process of safe milk sharing, whether through a wet nurse or donor milk. While these organizations do not match recipients to donors, they have created local chapters world-wide. Some have a Facebook group where wet nurses and donors can post their offers and recipients can post their needs. Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies does not promote milk sharing for profit.

Human Milk Banks

If a mother does not feel comfortable using a wet nurse or cannot find one, the next best alternative is a milk bank. The most prominent milk bank in the United States is the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), with twenty-three locations in the U.S. and two locations in Canada. HMBANA requires each donor to undergo a thorough health screening including blood work to ensure they meet the strict criteria necessary to produce healthy and clean breast milk.

hmbana logo

The milk is separated into batches by taking donor milk from 3 to 5 mothers and mixing it to evenly distribute all the human milk components. Those batches are then pasteurized, checked for bacterial growth and, if clean, frozen, stored and ready to ship for use. Because HMBANA’s main clientele are seriously ill and frail infants in hospitals, their screening and processing protocols are extremely strict. Donor milk that has not been distributed to hospitals is available to the general public. However, at $3.75/oz the cost may be prohibitive. While HMBANA is a not-for profit, the costs involved in processing the milk and maintaining offices requires them to charge a fee for the milk.

Donor Milk

eats on feets logoIf it is not possible to obtain milk from a milk bank, finding a milk donor is ideal. As mentioned above, sites such as Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies provide guidelines on how to find a donor and ensure their milk is safe. Typically, safety is established by running blood work, conducting a thorough health and lifestyle history, safe handling of milk and home pasteurization. Often not emphasized enough is the diet of the donor. Ideally, breast milk should come from a mother that is eating as cleanly as possible: organic, whole foods made from scratch, avoiding processed foods and poor forms of food preparation such as the microwave.

human milk for babiesOnce recipients of donor milk are aware of how to screen for donor milk, they can find a local chapter and search for possible matches on the Facebook page. Again, these organizations do not match recipients to donors, but provide the infrastructure and guidance to empower recipients to do so safely and with informed consent. This service is free and donor milk is also free: Eats on Feets and Human Milk 4 Human Babies does not support or approve of the selling of breast milk on their network.

Homemade Formula

If every effort has been made but none of the above options are viable, make your own homemade infant formula by following the recipes found in The Nourishing Traditions Book of Baby & Child Care by Sally Fallon Morell and Thomas Cowan, M.D. The recommended recipe is the cow milk-based formula which is re-printed in our post “Nourishing Homemade Infant Formula” along with instructions and a video tutorial.

If your baby is allergic to cow’s milk, there is a goat milk-based recipe and if your baby is allergic to dairy in general, there is a liver-based recipe. Note that due to the nutritional profile of goat milk and liver, those recipes require additional ingredients to ensure certain essential nutrients are included. Conveniently, a kit containing most of the ingredients is sold by Radiant Life. Please visit the Weston A. Price Foundation’s website for all the recipes, frequently asked questions and testimonials by moms who used these formulas successfully.

commercial formulaCommercial Formula

Infant formula is one of the largest human experiments in history,” according to Dr. Ruth Lawrence, prominent pediatrician and author of “Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession.” Commercial formula has been found to contain BPA from the can’s lining, genetically modified ingredients, elevated levels of lead and arsenic, deficiencies in protein and certain vitamins and minerals and can cause a whole host of very serious problems.

While choosing an organic formula over conventional should be a given, organic formula is not as clean as the public thinks. A review of all the commercial organic formulas on the market by Charlotte Vallaeys, former Director of the Farm and Food Policy at the Cornucopia Institute and now a Senior Analyst within the Consumer Safety and Sustainability Program, concludes that Baby’s Only Organic by Nature’s One has the least amount of toxins. It is also the only company that makes formula (there are only two others in the U.S.) that is not in the pharmaceutical business or publicly traded. Nature’s One is a family-owned, private company.

Mitigating and Preparing

If you must use commercial formula, introduce solids as soon as is safely possible to limit the length of time your baby is on formula. Inform yourself about the realities of formula by reading well-researched articles and studies. Do the research in advance: if you are pregnant, consider what you might do if you cannot breast feed. Having to scramble for a solution in the midst of feeding a hungry baby may not lead to the best outcome. Keep in mind that your choice has lifelong impacts. You and your child deserve the best.

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