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Study: giving newborns small amounts of formula can help long-term breastfeeding

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Longer-term and exclusive breastfeeding may be helped by giving a baby small amounts of formula in its first days of life, a new study has found.

Published in the journal Pediatrics this week, the study found that newborns who are losing weight after birth and are given a small amount of formula to supplement while the mother’s milk comes in are more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding at three months old.

The research comes out of the University of California, San Francisco, and is likely to be controversial. The Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention recently launched a campaign to get mothers to breastfeed exclusively.  The agency says less than half of American babies still breastfeed at six months.

Breast milk is more easily digestible than formula, which is critical for a developing digestive system, said Dr Neal Kaufman, a pediatrician and one of the Commissioners of First 5 LA. Kaufman and others say the fatty acids, vitamins, and antibodies that babies get through mother’s milk make it the “perfect” first food. 

The introduction of infant formula to a newborn has long worried breastfeeding advocates, who  believe the added sweetness of formula can lead a baby to prefer it over breast milk.  The same goes for the bottle: if a baby likes the ease of drinking from a bottle nipple better, she may stop nursing, said Robbie Gonzalez Dow, Executive Director of the California Breastfeeding Coalition.

Yet the study has found that in the days after birth, when a mother is producing a substance called colostrum, the precursor to breast milk, babies can benefit from controlled amounts of syringe-fed formula – the equivalent of one bottle every few days.

Of 40 babies in the UCSF study, 95 percent those who received small amounts of formula in the first few days were breastfeeding to some extent at three months. In contrast, only 68 percent of the babies who did not receive that early limited formula were still breastfeeding at three months.

The study's authors concluded that the use of small amounts of formula may lessen the mother’s stress that can occur with early breastfeeding and build the mother’s confidence to enable exclusive breastfeeding. Lead author Dr. Valerie Flaherman told the San Francisco Chronicle that the findings do not mean that all babies should get formula or that formula is better than breast-feeding.

"It's my strong belief that most babies do not need formula," she said.  But the study "does raise the possibility that some babies may benefit from a little bit of carefully managed formula."

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