What’s the difference between breast milk and formula? Hear it from an expert!

The difference between breast milk and formula is due to the presence of oligosaccharides that help to nourish the baby, and build immunity.

Formula milk benefits
Is formula miilk safe? Image courtesy: Shutterstock
Dr Anubhava Patel Published on: 22 February 2022, 12:00 pm IST
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It is a known fact that there’s nothing more nourishing than breast milk for a newborn since it provides all the nutrients the baby needs. There is a huge difference between breast milk and formula milk (for those looking to try it out). It primarily lies in the presence of oligosaccharides. These are only found in human milk.

In fact, human milk has an oligosaccharide concentration that is 100-1000 times the concentration seen in milk from other domesticated farm animals. These oligosaccharides are complex sugars that perform a variety of functions, including acting as special prebiotics.

breast milk vs formula milk
Breast milk is the elixir of life! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) are the third most abundant component of breast milk, after lactose and lipids. The initial breast milk produced by mothers called colostrum has the highest levels of oligosaccharides. HMOs have no direct nutritional value but benefit newborn health in many other ways.

Here’s how babies can benefit from human milk:

1. Encourages growth of healthy gut bacteria

The foundation of our immunity lies in the gut. A baby starts developing an immune system only after birth. For this, they need healthy gut bacteria. This is where prebiotics and probiotics come in. Probiotics refer to healthy bacteria that build a strong immune system. The food for these bacteria is known as prebiotics.

The most abundantly found HMO in mother’s milk is known as 2′-FL. These are indigestible breast milk components and hence reach the gut intact. Many types of healthy bacteria found in an infant’s guts, particularly those from the Bifidobacterium genus can consume HMOs. Thus, HMOs encourage the growth of these gut bacteria and help build a baby’s immune system.

2. Helps flush out harmful bacteria from the body

Recent studies have suggested that the presence of HMOs in breastmilk may be the reason why breastfed infants suffer from fewer infections, as compared to formula-fed infants.

breast milk vs formula milk
Breast milk is the ultimate immunity booster for your child. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Apart from feeding healthy gut bacteria, HMOs improve the ability of probiotic bacteria to attach themselves to the intestinal lining, while keeping harmful bacteria from attaching to the baby’s gut.

As a result, healthy bacteria spend more time in the gut. Since the parasitic elements cannot latch themselves onto the gut, they continue moving through the digestive system and are eventually passed out through stools. This action by HMOs like 2′-FL is believed to be responsible for fewer instances of diarrhea and dysentery in breastfed babies.

3. Antiviral activity

Along with protecting a baby from bacterial infections, HMOs also protect babies from norovirus and rotavirus infections. They mimic receptor sites and block these viruses from entering healthy cells.

Also, read: Breastfeeding in Covid-19 times: An expert debunks 6 myths

In addition, they keep the virus from multiplying and thus act as natural antivirals. This action by HMOs is believed to reduce the effect of viruses responsible for influenza and other respiratory issues. Many researchers are speculating that HMOs may also act as an antiviral against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

breast milk vs formula milk
Breastfeed your child for optimum growth and development. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

When should new mothers depend on formula?

Some mothers may have difficulty producing enough breast milk for their babies. In such cases, it is recommended to use pasteurized donor milk rather than feeding infant formula. Donor milk refers to breast milk donated by other healthy lactating mothers.

Donor mothers must meet stringent health standards and the milk donated is screened, pasteurized, tested and then made available in a milk bank. So, it is safe for your baby. Moreover, pasteurization ensures the HMOs in breastmilk are retained, which thereby helps improve the overall health and wellbeing of the recipient babies.

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About the Author
Dr Anubhava Patel Dr Anubhava Patel

Dr Anubhava Patel, Neonatologist & Pediatrician, NICU Incharge, Apollomedics Super Specialty Hospitals, Lucknow

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