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Offering Small Amounts of Formula to Newborns May Pave Way for Longer Breastfeeding

May 13, 2013 08:38 PM EDT
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It may seem counterintuitive but a new study suggests giving newborns a bottle of formula milk over a few days, will actually increase the chances the baby will be successfully breastfeeding three months later.

Researchers at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) are changing things up a little for the "breast is best" notion by suggesting small amounts of formula for certain newborns may help lay the foundation for long-term breastfeeding.

Use of formula is generally considered a "slippery slope" to stopping breastfeeding, says Dr. Valerie Flaherman, pediatrician and lead author of the study, released Monday in the journal Pediatrics. "But our goal is to get babies to breastfeed for longer," she said.

To reach these results, researchers looked at a small sample study of 40 babies who were between 1 and 2 days old, exclusively breast-fed and had lost between 5 and 10 percent of their birth weight, doctor. Twenty of those babies were given only breast milk while the other 20 were given a small dose of formula via a syringe (to avoid nipple confusion) after they breast-fed-not enough to make them full and possibly reject breast milk at their next feeding. These formula moms only supplemented their breast milk until their mature milk came in.

Researchers believe that, by introducing formula early on and then withdrawing it, some moms feel more secure that their babies are not hungry. Mothers who feel more confident with breastfeeding are therefore more likely to continue with the practice.

When researchers checked on the sample group three months, they found that 79 percent of the babies who had received formula for a few days were exclusively breastfeeding, compared to 42 per cent of the control group.

"Many mothers develop concerns about their milk supply, which is the most common reason they stop breastfeeding in the first three months," Flaherman said in the statement. "But this study suggests that giving those babies a little early formula may ease those concerns and enable them to feel confident continuing to breastfeed."

But Flaherman emphasized difference between early limited formula (ELF) and giving newborns full bottles of formula.

"Rather than giving full bottles of formula that make it hard for the baby to return to the breast, ELF is a small amount of supplementation with a clear end point," she said.

However, the sample group of just 40 babies is small and the authors acknowledged that their participants were mostly white and Asian, and more educated than the general population. Further research into the relationship between formula-feeding a baby early on and how well they go on to breastfeed needs to be done.

"It will be important to see whether these results can be confirmed in future, larger studies and in other populations," said senior author Dr. Thomas Newman, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF and a pediatrician at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

In the meantime, lactation support groups such as La Leche League International and other experts continue to encourage mothers to breastfeed, calling a mother's milk "superior infant food.A recent report cited breast milk as fending off necrotizing enterocolitis, an immune system overreaction that kills thousands of premature babies every year. Doctors suspect formula may contribute to the problem because it's so rich and since these tiny babies don't have fully developed digestive systems and partly digested food may sit for too long, allowing harmful bacteria to thrive. 

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