What Are the Differences Between Breast Milk & Formula? Experts & Real Moms Explain

Ah, formula versus breast milk. Unless you've been living under a rock (which honestly sounds sort of blissful sometimes), you're aware that this is a hot topic in the mommy sphere. Most people seem to have an opinion on the topic — and maybe it's a case of the loudest voices getting the most attention, but it seems like people aren't afraid to share those thoughts. So, opinions and emotions aside, what are the biggest differences between formula and breast milk? I've done my research, I've talked to experts, and I've talked to parents, and this is what I've found out.

I've got to start with the most obvious difference — and the one that's typically cited first in debates — and that's what's in breast milk versus formula. Lydia Yeager, Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner for Ryan Health, breaks down the differences in an interview with Romper.

"The biggest differences between breast milk and formula is its composition. Formula tries to mimic all of the nutrition in breast milk —water, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins, and so on — and its production is regulated by strict standards. While they both provide adequate nutrition for baby, breast milk contains antibodies — germ fighters — that can protect babies from infection," says Yeager to Romper.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of these antibodies in breast milk. According to their website, "The AAP continues to support the unequivocal evidence that breastfeeding protects against a variety of diseases and conditions in the infant," including bacteremia, respiratory tract infections, Type 1 and 2 diabetes, lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkins disease, among others.

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Additionally, breast milk is a dynamic food source for baby. Yeager explains to Romper, "It changes composition as baby grows, it changes during growth spurts, it changes when your baby is sick. Formula, on the other hand, doesn’t change."

You'd be hard pressed to find a new mama who isn't aware of these immunity benefits — but that doesn't mean everyone has the ability or desire to breastfeed. For many, there are issues that result in a low or even nonexistent supply, which brings us to a major difference between formula and breast milk — the availability of formula. For new mom Sophie Plappert, the stress of an emergency C-section coupled with pain medications created major breast milk supply problems.

"I spent the whole first day home from the hospital nursing my daughter and she still acted hungry, so I decided to pump and see if I was getting anything. I didn't even get a drop," Plappert tells Romper. Needing to feed her new baby, Plappert says the decision to formula-feed was an obvious one. "When you're sleep deprived, in a lot of pain, and recovering from literally having your body ripped open and your organs physically removed and repositioned, the thought of having to do anything else but lie on the couch and snuggle your baby is just so overwhelming."

For Plappert, the ability to use formula took a weight off her shoulders, allowing her to focus on building a bond with her newborn. Yeager says this isn't uncommon. "Some women become so stressed about breastfeeding that it negatively affects maternal-child bonding. In those cases, breastfeeding may not be the best option," Yeager tells Romper.

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On the other hand, many moms find that breastfeeding is an incomparable bonding experience with their new little one. Anna Ross credits her super-tight bond with her daughter Lilliana to their 13 months of exclusively breastfeeding. "It took some time for me to notice the bond, and the last day she breastfed was so emotional for me," Ross says in an interview with Romper. So, when it comes to the "bonding" factor of breast milk versus formula milk? It seems to depend on the personal situation of mom and baby. If both parties are happy, regardless of feeding method, the bond is bound to be strengthened.

OK, so which one is easier: formula or breastfeeding? For Louisa Mattingly, who nursed daughter Clara for 14 months, breastfeeding won by a landslide. "I preferred breastfeeding so much because no bottles to wash, no equipment or formula to lug around. Like, their food is always with you," Mattingly says in a message to Romper.

For Bailee Newton, the opposite was true, and formula was the much easier option. "I went back to work when Justin was 3 weeks old and the stress and expectations of student teaching, starting a new full time job, and being a first time parent made it hard for me to find time to pump, and it affected the amount of breast milk I was even producing. In order to relieve some of the stress of finding time to pump, pumping enough, finding somewhere to store what I was pumping in, we decided to switch to formula," Newton tells Romper.

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Formula and breast milk clearly have different pros and cons when it comes to things like availability, cost, and ease, and different moms will favor different ones. However, just as there are studied benefits for the baby to be breastfed, there are some studied health benefits to mom, too.

"Breastfeeding moms have less bleeding after delivery and their uterus returns to normal size more quickly. Breastfeeding has also been shown to decrease risk for postpartum depression," Yeager tells Romper.

Of course, all of these are dependent on if mom is able and willing to breastfeed. Many times, breastfeeding is not an option for a mom due to physical and mental obstacles, lifestyle, or simply personal preference. Julia Forgie, developmental psychologist and mom of two, urges parents to remember that at the end of the day, there's one goal that is most important. "I think it’s important to consider that #fedisbest," Forgie tells Romper. "There is way too much mom shaming going on out there, and I think whatever your personal preference, it’s important to avoid passing judgment on others’ parenting practices."