The choice between breast and bottle feeding for small babies, and issues around feeding and weaning older babies and toddlers, are subjects that are discussed wherever parents of young children meet.
This page covers issues about feeding small babies, up to the age of about six months old, when you can start weaning (or adding solid food to their diet).
Here we discuss the issue of breast vs bottle, and advise on equipment that you will need for each.
Breast vs. Bottle
As a general principle, you have a choice of two for feeding small babies: breast-feeding and bottle-feeding.
Breast-feeding is generally favoured by midwives, health visitors and other medical professionals as being ‘better’ for babies, although the actual evidence for this is slim (see box).
Is Breast Best?
Over many years, campaigners for breast-feeding have suggested that ‘breast is best’ for babies. Claims put forward for the benefits of breast-feeding, and supported by ‘scientific evidence’, include that breast-fed babies have higher IQs, better health and are less likely to be obese in later life.
Unfortunately, most of the studies cited in support of these claims failed to control for some fairly basic issues, particularly the fact that women with higher levels of education are more likely to breast-feed.
In other words, the issue is one of causation: does breast-feeding cause all these benefits, or is it just that breast-fed babies are more likely to gain these benefits anyway either from nature or nurture? This is not clear either way, and is unlikely to be proven anytime soon.
Where there is access to clean water and sterile bottles, breast or bottle basically boils down to a matter of choice and ability.
Some babies do not breast-feed well, and some mothers find it very difficult, either physically or because of needing to take medication. If this is you, don’t beat yourself up.
Your baby will not suffer for being bottle-fed.
There are probably two main gains from breast-feeding:
- It doesn’t actually cost you anything, except perhaps the price of a nursing bra or two. Over six months, the cost of formula milk can be extremely expensive so this is a big advantage.
- Your baby will undoubtedly be at less risk of getting any kind of stomach infection although, if you are very careful with the sterilising, this should not be a problem with bottles either.
The question of convenience is a tricky one.
Some people claim that breast-feeding is more convenient because you do not need to prepare bottles and take them with you wherever you go.
On the other hand, if you are bottle-feeding, you do not need to worry about covering up before you feed, or offending anyone by feeding in public.
Bottle-feeding also means that fathers, and indeed, other friends and relatives, can feed the baby, which is very convenient if you want to have an evening out with friends or go back to work.
Feeding Babies - What You Need
Whether you decide to bottle- or breast-feed, there are certain things that you will need.
For breast-feeding, these are:
- A nursing bra or two (and it is well worth getting these professionally fitted after the baby arrives);
- Breast pads, which can be either disposable or cloth. Cloth pads need washing and are not as absorbent, so you may want to get some disposable ones at least for early days;
- Some muslin squares to catch drips and to put over your shoulder when you wind the baby. They also make good cover-ups if you have forgotten to take anything else with you when you go out;
- Some good quality nipple cream or ointment. Midwives generally recommend lanolin-based ointments. Kamillosan is chamomile-based and is therefore soothing. You may need to try several before you find one that works for you;
If you wish to express any milk to give it in a bottle, and introduce the idea of bottles without using formula, you will also need a breast pump and a bottle, but this is not in any way essential.
However certain you are that you want to breast-feed, it is worth having a bottle and some ready-made formula to hand, just in case.
Crises of confidence and ability tend to happen at inconvenient hours, and it is as well to be prepared rather than have to send your partner out looking for an all-night pharmacy.
For bottle-feeding, you will need:
- A supply of at least six bottles and teats. These come in several types and babies are surprisingly picky about which they will accept, so if possible find a friend who has been through it all before and borrow several to try out before spending your own money. You can wash both bottles and teats in the dishwasher if you have one but, if you don’t, you may want to invest in a bottle brush;
- A steriliser or other means of sterilising bottles. A plug-in steam steriliser is probably the most efficient, but some kind of microwaveable bag is also fine for one or two bottles;
- Formula milk, which is available in ready-to-use or powder form. Powder is considerably cheaper, but you may like to have one or two cartons of pre-prepared for use during outings;
- Muslin squares for putting over your shoulder when you wind your baby; and
- Bibs to protect the baby’s clothes.
Optional extras include things like a small divided plastic box, which holds measured quantities of formula powder. It is probably best to wait to see if you will use such a thing before buying it.
Breast-feeding babies: getting started
It is important to remember that every baby, and every mother, is different.
Some babies, and some mothers, take to breast-feeding very naturally. The baby simply latches on, and away you go. For other mothers and babies, breast-feeding can be much harder. The baby may struggle to latch on, or keep falling off, or you may find it very painful.
If this is the case, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you have attended ante-natal classes, you will probably have discussed breast-feeding. You may already know the importance of positioning. Theory and reality, however, can be different.
Your midwife is likely to be your best source of help, especially early on, for your baby’s first few feeds. She will be able to help you get the baby into the right position, and to latch on effectively.
It may take a while to find the right position for you and your baby. Keep trying different positions, especially if your baby seems to be struggling to latch on.
If you continue to find it difficult and painful to breastfeed, keep asking for help.
Unfortunately, the help available for breastfeeding is variable, both between and within countries, but the situation is improving. It is worth checking the websites of parental support organisations, such as the National Childbirth Trust, LaLeche League, Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, The Breastfeeding Network, and KellyMom. All these contain useful information. Many will be able to guide you towards more help in your local area, including local breastfeeding counsellors.
Your doctor or health visitor may also be able to suggest local resources that could help, such as breastfeeding support groups.
If you and your baby are doing it right, breastfeeding should not hurt, at least beyond the initial latch-on.
If you find breastfeeding continues to be painful, there may be other issues. For example, some mothers develop mastitis, and may need antibiotics to treat the infection.
The bottom line is that if you find it very uncomfortable, it is worth seeking help from your doctor or health visitors, because there may well be a medical reason.
It is fine to move to bottle-feeding because you want to do so.
It is, however, a pity to stop doing something you want to do simply because you didn’t like to ask for help.
The choice is yours...
Only you know what is best for you and your baby.
You will find that other people will inevitably offer advice, some of which will be less welcome than others, and also make judgements about your choices. You can, however, ignore them.