Pitfalls of Infant Formula

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated July 28, 2017.

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Though there are many articles about the benefits of breastfeeding for babies, benefits for mothersuniqueness of breast milk, the importance of colostrum, and the amazing antibodies in breast milk it is also important to talk about the pitfalls of infant formula.

Here are 20 known and documented adverse health implications from infant formula:

    1. Cognitive Development
      Formula-fed infants have less advanced cognitive development.1 Preterm babies given formula have decreased cognitive abilities at five years of age.2
    2. IQ
      Formula-fed infants have lower mental development scores throughout adolescence, by as much as 10 points.3  4
    3. SIDS
      Formula feeding increases a baby’s risks of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.5
    4. Allergies & Eczema
      Formula-fed infants have higher rates of allergic disease.6
    5. Asthma
      Babies who receive formula before 2 months of age have a four-fold increase than babies who are breastfed for at least four months.7
    6. Ear Infections
      Formula fed babies have 75% increase in incidence of otitis media (ear infections).8
    7. Respiratory Infections
      Formula-fed infants have higher rates of bronchitis, croup, and pneumonia.9
    8. Infectious Disease
      Formula feeding is associated with higher incidences of infectious diseases (including diarrhea, sepsis, and pneumonia) and hospitalizations for illnesses.10
    9. Necrotizing Enterocolitis
      Formula-feeding is associated with significantly higher rates of NEC.11 NEC is a serious illness that can be fatal, especially in premature infants.
    10. Gastrointestinal Illness
      Children and adults who were formula-fed have greater incidences of Chrohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, Celiac Disease, and other GI issues.12  Given that breast milk is essential for the proper development of a baby’s immature intestinal mucosa, it makes sense that coating his system with anything other than breast milk before his body is ready can cause gastrointestinal distress.
    11. Harmful bacteria
      Exclusively formula-fed babies are more likely to be colonized with pathogenic bacteria such as E-coli, Candida, and Clostridium.13
    12. Gross Motor Coordination
      Formula-fed infants are more likely to have gross motor coordination delays than babies who were exclusively breastfed at least four months.14
    13. Obesity
      Children who are formula-fed have increased rates of obesity throughout their lifetimes.15  This could be because breastfeeding has a cell programming effect in reducing overweight conditions, which formula-fed infants miss out on.  Formula-fed babies have higher insulin concentrations in their plasma which can begin fat deposition in the body at an early age. And breast milk contains the hormone leptin (which is not in formula) that helps regulate body weight.
    14. Diabetes
      Breastfeeding is protective against both Type I and Type II diabetes. Diabetes rates are higher among children and adults who were formula-fed.16
    15. Cancer
      Risks for several childhood cancers are greatly increased in formula-fed children: lymphoma, leukemia, and Hodgkin’s disease.17  Researchers have identified alpha-lactalbumin, a protein in breast milk, which causes the death of abnormal cells.  This human milk protein does not exist in formula.
    16. Diarrhea and Vomiting
      One of the leading causes of infant deaths around the world, the incidence of diarrheal disease is greatly increased in formula-fed infants. Exclusive breastfeeding for at least four months is highly protective.18
    17. Multiple Sclerosis
      The strongest link to MS is a person’s diet, especially in fatty acids.  Breast milk has the perfect makeup of essential fatty acids for humans and has not been replicated in formula.  In fact, formula destabilizes the normal development of myelin. There are higher incidences of MS in children and adults who were formula-fed.19
    18. Immunizations
      Children who are formula-fed show lower antibody responses to vaccines.  In fact, some formula-fed children show no antibody levels at all.20
    19. Neurotoxins
      Formula has much higher levels of manganese than breast milk and many times also contains MSG, toxic lead and silicon levels, nitrites, GMOs, and more. Formula is not sterile and has been recalled many times over the years.21
    20. Schizophrenia
      Exclusive formula-feeding, or breastfeeding less than two weeks, has been shown to be associated with an elevated risk of developing schizophrenia.22


{Note from Nursing Nurture:  One of the most controversial parenting topics is breastfeeding vs. formula feeding. Women love to hear the benefits of breastfeeding but if something is stated in the reverse it can cause great dissension. Mothers become polarized.  Some vehemently stand up for breastfeeding benefits while others say they “hate” the messenger.  

This article is not intended to upset mothers who formula-feed.  Nor is it meant to hurt them or make them feel guilty

Rather it is to help mothers have all the information and be able to make an informed decision.  Health care providers do not provide all of the negative impacts of formula and many mothers lament the fact that they were never told of the long-term, negative health implications for both mothers and babies from formula. Ultimately, all mothers must make what they feel to be the best decision for their situation.

Some mothers, when given all the information, will choose to breastfeed when they normally would not have.  Still others will persevere to find good lactation support, in spite of a health care system set up to fail those who need this additional help.  And, most importantly, understanding the pitfalls of formula may resonate so strongly with some breastfeeding mothers that they may choose to donate their breast milk.  By doing this, a day could come when no baby whose mother truly can’t produce enough milk is faced with having to give her child formula.}

Show 22 footnotes

  1. Anderson, J.W., et al. (1999) Breastfeeding and cognitive development:  A meta-analysis.  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70, 525-535.
  2. Beano, G. et al. (2011) Predictors of the risk of cognitive deficiency in very preterm infants: the EPIPAGE prospective cohort. Acta Paediatrica, 100, 370-378.
  3. Iacovou, M. & Sevilla-Sanz, A. (2010) The effect of breastfeeding on children’s cognitive development. https://www.iser.essex.ac.uk/publications/working-papers/iser/2010-40.pdf
  4. Uauy, R. & Andraca, I. (1993) Human milk and breastfeeding for optimal mental development. http://archive.unu.edu/unupress/food2/UID04E/UID04E0J.HTM
  5. Vennemann, M., et al. (2009) Does breastfeeding reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome? Pediatrics, 123, e406-e410.
  6. van Odijk, J., et al. (2003) Breastfeeding and allergic disease:  A multidisciplinary review of the literature (1966-2001) on the mode of early feeding in infancy and its impact on later atopic manifestations. Allergy, 58, 833-43.
  7. Guilbert, G.W., et al. (2007) Effect of breastfeeding on lung function in childhood and modulation by maternal asthma and atopy. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine 176:843-8.
  8. Dewey, K.G., et al. (1995) Differences in morbidity between breast-fed and formula-fed infants. Journal of Pediatrics. 126(5 Pt 1):696-702.
  9. Duijts, L., et al. (2010) Prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of infectious diseases in infancy. Pediatrics, 126, e18-e25.
  10. Hengstermann, S., et al. (2010) Formula feeding is associated with increased hospital admissions due to infections among infants younger than 6 months in Manial, Philippines. Journal of Human Lactation, 26, 19-25.
  11. Updegrove, K. (2004) Necrotizing enterocolitis: the evidence for the use of human milk in prevention and treatment. Journal of Human Lactation, 20, 335-339.
  12. Kane, S. & Lemieux, N. (2005) The role of breastfeeding in postpartum disease activity in women with inflammatory bowel disease. American Journal of Gastroenterology, 100, 102-105.
  13. Penders, J., et al. (2006) Factors influencing the composition of the intestinal microbiota in early infancy. Pediatrics, 118, 511-521.
  14. Sacker, A., et al. (2006) Breastfeeding and developmental delay: Findings from the Millennium Cohort Study. Pediatrics, 118, e682-e689.
  15. Stuebe, A.M. (2009) The risks of not breastfeeding for mothers and infants. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2(4), 222-231.
  16. Stuebe, A.M. (2009) The risks of not breastfeeding for mothers and infants. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2(4), 222-231.
  17. Stuebe, A.M. (2009) The risks of not breastfeeding for mothers and infants. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2(4), 222-231.
  18. Duijts, L., et al. (2010) Prolonged and exclusive breastfeeding reduces the risk of infectious diseases in infancy. Pediatrics, 126, e18-e25.
  19. Pisacane, A., et al (1994) Breastfeeding and multiple sclerosis. BMJ, 308:1411.
  20. Zoppi, G., et al (1983) Diet and antibody response to vaccinations in healthy infants. Lancet, 2, 11-14.
  21. Mannel, R., et al. (2013) Core Curriculum for Lactation Consultant Practice, 3rd ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett Learning, 380-381.
  22. Sorensen, H. J., et al, (2005) Breastfeeding and risk of schizophrenia in the Copenhagen Perinatal Cohort. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 112(1), 26-29.