Breast milk and formula at a glance

Many women decide how they’re going to feed their baby before they even get pregnant. But even if you’re sure about how you want to feed Baby, it’s good to be familiar with both breastmilk and formula in case you end up having to do something different down the line. Here are a few basic things to know about how the two stack up against each other.

Breast milk

Breast milk contains vitamins, minerals, probiotics, prebiotics, and healthy antibodies that protect against disease, viruses, allergies, and infection. Breast milk has some unique health effects, and there isn’t a formula that has the same benefits as breast milk. Plus, because of its natural ingredients, infants usually have an easier time digesting breast milk than they do formula. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk for infants.

  • Cost: Breast milk is a cheaper option than formula; the only costs from breastfeeding will likely be supplies if you plan on pumping or feeding Baby with a bottle. 
  • Preparation: There isn’t any preparation required with breast milk, but certain medications aren’t compatible with breastfeeding, and drinking alcohol to excess, and using marijuana or other illicit drugs is not recommended.
  • Supplementation: Many babies don’t get enough sunlight and are at risk for rickets, and breast milk isn’t fortified with extra vitamin D the way formula is, so it’s recommended that breastfed babies receive vitamin D supplements until they can drink fortified formula or milk, although recent research suggests that drops may not be needed by babies whose mothers take 6400 IU of vitamin D a day.


Formula, which is made in a sterile environment and consists of proteins, sugars, fats, and vitamins, is a nutritious and healthy alternative to breast milk. It doesn’t have antibodies that protect babies in the same way that breast milk does, but formula is still a great fit for millions of babies as their main source of nutrition.

  • Cost: A year of basic powdered formula generally costs around $1,500, although it can be higher if parents opt for more expensive formula. All formula brands and types are required to meet the FDA’s standards for infant nutrition.
  • Preparation: Women who formula-feed don’t have to worry about their diet or medications, but the preparation process does take a little longer for parents. If you formula-feed, you’ll need to buy formula and the necessary supplies, make sure that it’s all accessible and sterile when you need to feed Baby, and heat it to the right temperature for feedings before you’re ready to feed Baby. 
  • Supplementation: As mentioned above, formula can be a little harder for babies to digest, and may produce gas or constipation in babies. Unlike breast milk, however, formula is already supplemented with vitamin D, so you won’t need to worry about this supplementation if you’re formula-feeding. 

How do they compare?

If you’re able to feed Baby breast milk, and you’re interested in doing so, you should give it a shot, because it has some pretty special health benefits for babies! However, breast milk isn’t the right choice for every family. It’s not always one or the other, either. Many women nurse at home, but don’t have a lot of time to pump when they’re at work or out of the house, and supplement with formula. Talk to your provider or a lactation consultant if you need help with this decision, and remember that it’s completely normal for you to need some time to figure out what works best for you and Baby.

  • Sally Myer. “What Makes Human Milk Special?” La Leche League International, Oct 10 2007. Web. 
  • “Breastfeeding vs. Formula Feeding.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, 2017. Web. 
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics. “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.” Pediatrics. 129(3). Web. Mar 2012.
  • Hollis et. al. “Maternal Versus Infant Vitamin D Supplementation During Lactation: A Randomized Controlled Trial” Pediatrics, 2015.
  • Marsha Walker. Breastfeeding Management for the Clinician: Using the Evidence. Jones & Bartlett Learning, 1st ed. January 11 2006. Page 19.
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