In the hierarchy of infant food options, breastmilk reigns supreme. The introduction of breastmilk into a baby’s gastrointestinal system sends signals to the brain, organs, muscles, and nervous system that prime both the body and brain for optimal growth and development by jumpstarting a host of reactions that lead to everything from better vision to increased athleticism. Just look at Michael Jordan and soccer superstar Pelé: if more dads knew that Jordan was breastfed for three years and Pelé for five years, push presents would come with strings attached!
There is no question that breastmilk provides your baby with the best start, but does it really matter if he drinks it straight from the tap? While providing bottled breastmilk is leaps and bounds better than feeding your baby commercial infant formula, there are minor differences between breastmilk consumed at the breast and breastmilk consumed in the bottle that make taking it from the tap, if possible, the ideal option.
Unlike formula, breastmilk changes at every feeding and provides a constantly evolving immunological fortress that defends your baby from the germs and viruses to which you are exposed. But the magic goes even further. If your baby is exposed to germs and viruses, and you are not – be it by way of a daycare setting or sharing chew toys with the dog – the moment your baby’s mouth touches your breasts, your breastmilk will immediately recognize those microbes and use its naturally occurring interferons, interleukins, and SIgA (secretory immunoglobulin A) to mix up an extra batch of immunological protection as part of that very feeding. Breastmilk from the tap offers instantaneous protection!
But its powers don’t stop there. Breastmilk changes throughout the day to meet the real-time needs of your baby. While the morning dose is more watery and thirst-quenching, the evening feed contains more fat. This is why pumping moms collect more milk during the morning hours and sometimes worry when they collect less milk in the afternoon. But rest assured that the goodness is still there. The evening ration is just more calorically dense.
And unlike formula, a one-month-old baby will consume the exact same amount of breastmilk as a six-month-old baby. Like magic, the breast alters the nutritional composition of its milk to attend to the growing needs of your baby. Breastfeeding is like having a personal nutritionist calculate your baby’s nutritional needs on a meal-to-meal basis over time. No wonder Jordan and Pelé rocked the sports arena—their training was jumpstarted by three to five years!
Aside from the added immunological and nutritional benefits of taking it from the tap, there are also compelling physiological reasons to get baby back to the breast as soon as possible. Bottles structurally change the shape of the baby’s mouth, making nose breathing more difficult—think snoring and an increased chance of speech therapy and orthodontia down the road. And because the ears, nose, and throat are all structurally related, babies fed at the breast are less prone to ear infections. That’s right: it isn’t just the milk, but the physical act of breastfeeding that provides long-term benefits.
While it’s clear that breastmilk from the breast provides some additional benefits, breastmilk in a bottle is still pretty darn perfect! And if your baby is mostly imbibing the bottled goodness, here are a few suggestions: if you are using bottles because of daycare, breastfeed your baby at pickup. Allow your milk to receive the signal that yes, your baby licked Johnny’s shoe and he needs some extra interferons today. If you freeze your milk, note not just the date, but also the time that you pumped. That way, it will make sense why baby ate 4 ounces of morning milk and still wants more, or if he had just 2 ounces of evening milk and was totally satisfied. And, to that point, always freeze your milk in 1-2 ounce increments because there is nothing worse than having a caregiver waste your precious milk.
So while breastmilk straight from the tap is always your best choice, your pumped milk follows behind as a very close second. And know that whether at the breast or in a bottle, feeding your baby breastmilk will set him up well for optimal development and who knows, maybe even a successful sports career!