After years of being told ‘breast is best’ by friends, families and health professionals, a study claims to show that formula fed babies are generally happier than breast fed ones.
A study designed to look at what affects a baby’s weight gain, both in the womb and after birth, showed that, whilst the baby’s gender, parents’ social circumstances and age appear to have little impact on the overall happiness of a baby, formula fed babies appeared to be more ‘manageable’ than breastfed or breast-and-formula (combination) fed babies.
But does that mean that breast isn’t best?
A study conducted by researchers from Cambridge, London and Paris found that formula fed babies seemed to smile more and cry less than breast fed and combination fed babies. The study also showed that formula fed babies settled to sleep more easily.
Researchers asked 316 Cambridge mothers to answer questions about their 3-month old babies. The questions were from an established ‘Infant Behaviour Questionnaire’ and covered ‘three dimensions’ of infant temperament, which scored babies on:
- How they reacted to stimulation; how often they laughed, cooed, smiled;
- How often they cried or became distressed, e.g. in the bath, when being changed;
- How easy they were to soothe and how able they were to settle themselves.
Of the 137 breastfed, 88 formula fed and 91 combination fed babies, the study showed that compared to formula fed babies, breastfed or combination fed babies, showed:
- Lower responses to stimulation (they smiled and cooed less).
- Higher emotional instability (cried more).
- Lower ability to regulate their own emotions (so they needed settling more).
So it would appear that mothers of breast and combination fed babies find their babies more ‘challenging’ than mothers of formula fed babies. However, the researchers pointed out that crying and being irritable is a method used by infant animals to communicate and to show that they need something.
Therefore, crying more, or needing to be soothed more, doesn’t necessarily mean that a baby is unhappier than a baby that cries less. It could just mean that they are expressing what they need in a way that comes naturally to them!
It may be, researchers say, that formula fed babies get more nutrients than they actually need. This means that they are, in effect, comfort eating. The feeling of being full all the time could make them appear more satisfied.
The study also didn’t consider other factors that may influence this result, such as:
- What made the mother decide to breast or formula feed; anxiety about whether the breast fed baby was satisfied could affect the mothers’ ratings.
- Whether the mother worked and whether there were other children in the home; issues and anxiety surrounding time spent with the baby could affect ratings.
- The mother’s level of education; mothers who breast fed or combination fed tended to have achieved higher levels of education. It is possible that their scoring of their babies’ temperaments might have been affected by this.
- Whether the description of the baby at 3 months is accurate; for example a baby may have been breast fed exclusively up until this point, then switched to formula.
It is also worth noting that the difference in the levels of each ‘dimension’ was also very small. It is unlikely that a difference in temperament would actually be noticeable if comparing two babies.
The researchers do admit that breast feeding is challenging for the mother and the baby but instead of reaching for the formula straight away mothers should instead be informed of the challenges involved and offered more support.
As a new parent, every decision is momentous! The consequences if you feel that you make the ‘wrong’ decision feel enormous and to add to it we have professionals, family and friends piling on the pressure to do what they think is ‘right’. Personally, I think that we all have different ideas on whether our child is having a good day or a bad one and those are all relative to how they are normally.
I have friends who have moved from breast to formula and found their baby slept better and generally seemed happier. But maybe their baby was intolerant to the breast milk? Or maybe the mum felt uncomfortable with breast feeding and the baby picked up on this anxiety? Or maybe it just didn’t work for them and formula was a route that left them both happier.
Maybe breast fed babies do cry more; if breastfeeding mums feed on demand then they will often wait for their baby to grizzle or cry before feeding them, whereas formula fed babies tend to have a feeding schedule and therefore have less reason to cry. As a mother who breastfed it is not the idea that my babies might have cried more but that they might have smiled LESS that worries me. My biggest concern, however, is that, so often, articles that show findings of research don’t give the full picture and we are so often led to making what we believe to be educated decisions when in fact we only have half of the information.
At the end of the day, we are all here to do what is best for our children and, in my opinion there is only one person whose instincts you can really trust; and that’s your own!
What is your experience of breastfeeding and formula? Do you think that your formula baby seemed happier?