Surprise! Supplementing With Formula Could Help Moms Breastfeed for Longer

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Could supplementing formula for baby boost breastfeeding rates among new moms? According to the latest study, researchers say yes!

The small study, published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that giving newborns a little bit of formula actually helps boost breastfeeding rates because the formula “primer” may help give new moms the assurance they need to pursue breastfeeding. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, followed 40 infant babies who had lost at least 5% of their birth weight by the time they were 36 hours old.

Though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that weight loss in an infant’s first days is typical (because they are becoming accustomed to feedings), the lead author Dr. Valerie Flaherman chose to focus the study on babies who’d lost 5% of their birth weight shortly after birth because further studies suggest that infants who lose 5% of their weight within 36 hours of life are much more likely to continue to lose weight.

During the course of the study, Flaherman and her team of researchers assigned half of the babies to receive two teaspoons of formula after each breastfeeding. These babies received formula via a syringe babies would not be confused transitioning from breast to bottle. Mothers were asked to discontinue the formula supplementation once their milk supply appeared, which generally took two to five days postbirth. The other half of mothers exclusively breastfed their babies (unless the doctor ordered formula).

Here’s what they found:

At one-week old, 10% of the formula group was still using formula in some way as part of their feeding strategy for baby, this was compared to 47% of the group originally assigned to breastfeed but who added formula. But at three-months old, 79% of the formula group was exclusively breastfeeding, which was 42% more than the moms who who were originally instructed to exclusively breastfeed baby. Of the findings Flaherman believes that introducing a small amount of formula early on (then withdrawing it) helped mothers feel secure that their babies weren’t hungry and losing weight in their first days of life. It’s likely, Flaherman suspects, that this gave them the confidence to go on exclusively breastfeeding baby.

“Using that little bit of formula earlier really seems to have had a big effect on whether babies are getting formula at one week,” Flaherman noted. “We wanted to try to find an early intervention we could do with these babies and moms to help them continue breast-feeding. I was surprised the effect was this big.”

Generally in the U.S. most mothers begin by breastfeeding, but only 40% of moms are still breastfeeding at six months and only 20% of moms make it to one year — a milestone that the AAP recommends moms reach.

Though Flaherman and her team are amazed by the effect of the study, not everyone shares their surprise. Dr. Kathleen Marinelli, chair-elect of the U.S. Breastfeeding committee, noted that, “This study goes against everything that’s been published for several years now from very reliable clinicians and researchers about the potential hazards of supplementing exclusively breast-feeding babies with formula. They’re flying in the face of years of research here and doing so rather glibly, stating that this is the new way to look at things.”

But Flaherman is the first to admit that the study’s results are not necessarily true (or applicable) for all babies. She said, “This isn’t something we think all people should do. It is just a potential took for moms to consider using if they think it  might be helpful.” She plans to now find a way to help more mothers breastfeed for as long as possible.

Of the work that’s left to be done, she said, “It’s kind of crazy that only 20% of people reach the recommended duration of breast-feeding. Different approaches to supporting breast-feeding may work better for different people.”

Did you exclusively breastfeed, or were there times you supplemented with formula?

Plus, more from The Bump:

A Smart Start to Breastfeeding

Top 10 Breastfeeding Tips for New Moms

Top 10 Reasons to Breastfeed Baby