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When It Has to be Formula: Optimizing the Health of Your Formula-Fed Baby

Posted: Babies & Toddlers » Baby Care » Health | March 1st, 2004



By Dr. Linda Folden Palmer

What can you do to optimize the health of your formula-fed infant? First off, know that infant formulas are constantly improving. Research on breast milk substitutes is growing every day, with few bumps in the road. Some very recent fortification attempts hold the promise of possibly lowering the greater risks of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and cancer found among children and adults who were formula-fed as infants.

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That said, there are strategies you can take now to improve your formula-fed baby’s health, as well as things you will definitely want to avoid. These factors can have a life-long impact on your child’s overall health.

Use hydrolyzed milk formula
The best choice for a first formula is a hydrolyzed milk formula. Cow’s milk proteins are large and difficult for young babies to digest. In hydrolyzed formulas, the proteins are broken down into smaller, more tolerable pieces.

Many of the potential problems with milk intolerance can be avoided by using hydrolyzed formula from the beginning. Often, small but regular intestinal bleeding occurs in formula-fed infants (or breastfed infants not tolerating mother’s diet), even when dairy intolerance is not suspected. This common occurrence is usually undetected but can lead to anemia. It may be preventable by simply beginning with hydrolyzed formula for the first months of life.

Hydrolyzed formulas do not taste as good to infants who have tasted other formulas. Therefore, it’s sometimes difficult to switch to a hydrolyzed formula once you’ve begun with regular formula.

Don’t forget nucleotides
For about a decade now, many formulas have been adding RNA and DNA building blocks known as nucleotides. Naturally found in breastmilk, nucleotides help the intestinal immune system and assist in fat digestion. Nucleotide-supplemented formulas have been shown to reduce incidence of diarrhea. Selecting a formula that lists nucleotides in the ingredients may prevent some illnesses in your baby.

Use acidophilus
Formula-fed infants develop adult-type flora in their intestines; these flora are part of the cause of formula-fed babies’ increased incidence of intestinal illnesses. Providing a daily dose of friendly bacteria (the kind found in yogurt) may help to maintain a gentler flora for baby.

Don’t give your young infant yogurt. Instead, provide a twice-daily dose of a good quality powdered combination of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and some other good bacteria. You can add the powder directly to the formula when preparing it. Store these friendly bacteria, known as probiotics, in the refrigerator.

Formula companies are currently studying the addition of probiotics to store formulas. They have been found to be safe for infants and to reduce colic and diarrhea, although occasional constipation has been reported with probiotic-fortified formulas. Daily use of probiotics may reduce your baby’s potential for developing allergies.

Consider DHA and ARA
There has been much research lately in regards to certain fatty acids known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid), important nutrients for brain and vision development. These long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids found in breast milk have traditionally been very low in infant formulas. It is known that babies are able to make their own DHA and ARA, but it has been found that they are unable to create optimal amounts.

This discrepancy explains in part the slight neurological and visual deficits linked with formula feeding. Studies show some visual and cognitive benefits when these fatty acids are supplemented in formula-fed infants. Several recently released studies and ongoing studies are working to find the optimal levels and forms of these to add to infant formulas. There are hopes that adding these fatty acids may even help to close the gap between formula and breastfed infants in terms of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Formulas with added DHA and ARA are available today. Study results so far are mixed but mostly positive. Oxidation of these fatty acids during storage may be a problem and may account for some of the mixed results. Some infants experience diarrhea from these formulas. Unfortunately, some formulas, upon adding these new ingredients, are dropping the valuable nucleotide supplements. Fresh forms of these fatty acids might be more beneficial to infants. Some consultants are recommending adding these directly to infants’ diet.

Cod liver oil is an excellent source of DHA as well as EPA, another important fatty acid. Expeller-pressed walnut oil is another source of these. A half a teaspoon per day may be appropriate for a small infant.

ARA is found only in animal sources. Egg yolk is an excellent source for babies, but it’s not something to give newborns. Some nutrition consultants suggest providing one yolk plus a teaspoon of cod liver oil daily after 4 months. Since egg white is the part of eggs that can cause allergy, you should avoid using them with infants. Cod liver oil may loosen the stools.

“Nurse” your bottle-fed baby
The term “to nurse” means to provide gentle nurturing care. Nursing your baby during feeding provides face-to-face contact and rich non-verbal and verbal conversation — all extremely valuable for your baby’s social and neurological development. Skin-to-skin contact is shown in studies to provide an additional advantage and can be included in a cozy bottle feeding.


Sidebar: On the horizon

Many beneficial components of breast milk are currently under study for use in infant formula. Some are available today in premature infant formulas.

• Glutamine encourages intestinal maturation.
• Added selenium improves immunity.
• One hundred and thirty different oligosaccharides are found in breast milk, feeding healthy intestinal flora (known as “prebiotics”) and providing specific immune protections. Two oligosaccharides are being studied today for infant formula, and a positive response has been demonstrated.
• Lactoferrin makes iron highly available to breastfed infants without feeding harmful intestinal flora the way that supplemental iron does. Studies are under way examining not only the supplementation of formula with a form of lactoferrin, but also using lactoferrin to directly treat certain serious infant illnesses.

There are many more breast milk components now being studied for formula supplementation, as well as other uses. According to Valerie McClain, IBCLC, there are presently “about 635 patents in the U.S. Patent Office that involve human milk.”

Reduce cortisol releases
When babies are allowed to cry without receiving a nurturing response, they release a large amount of cortisol into their systems. When this is allowed to happen regularly, their brains develop permanent, life-long patterns of increased cortisol release in response to stress. This increased cortisol-release pattern is strongly associated with depression and heart disease in later life.

In addition to the permanent modeling of brain receptor responses, chronic cortisol elevation makes babies more susceptible to illness. Incidentally, mothers release cortisol when their babies cry, too, increasing their own susceptibility to frequent illness, heart disease and depression.

In contrast, affectionate, responsive care induces the release of positive bonding and health-promoting hormones such as oxytocin in both mother and child.

Sleep with your baby in your bedroom
Studies show that the incidence of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is greatly reduced when your baby sleeps in the same room as you do, compared to sleeping in a crib in another part of the house. When neither parent smokes and proper safety measures are taken, cosleeping in the parental bed provides the same safety as crib sleeping in the same room, especially after the first two weeks of life.

Don’t use homemade formulas
Concerns over formula difficulties and trends toward organic and raw products have created increasing mention of making infant formulas at home. While “organic” and “natural” are wonderful concepts, raw, organic or standard cow’s and goat’s milk are dangerous infant feeds. The levels of many components are far too high in these milks, and the levels of other components are far too low. The number of problems that could arise is too high to mention.

Companies developing breast milk substitutes have devoted a century of research to create optimal formulas. No homemade formula recommendations have near the advantage of this research. And professionally made organic formulas have now hit the American shelves.

Consider starting solids sooner
Studies show that delaying the introduction of solid foods is highly beneficial when a baby is exclusively breastfed — but the same does not always ring true for formula-fed or formula-supplemented infants. It is difficult for some formula-fed infants to gain enough iron from their formula, no matter how much is in it, and babies’ own iron stores may begin running out after several months. Dark-colored vegetables also have valuable antioxidants that have been missing in the formula diet.

Babies who have been experiencing a slight intolerance to their formula may robustly respond to the introduction of non-dairy solid foods. Some formula-fed babies fare better with introductions of strained vegetables, meats or a little fortified rice cereal as early as 4 months. Sugary foods, juice or plain white-flour snacks have much less nutritional value than formula and are not appropriate for babies. Delay the introduction of fruit, which teaches babies to acquire a taste for sweet foods, unless you are trying prunes for constipation.

Keep formula in the diet for 18 months
Studies show that children fare even better when formula is continued in the diet for 18 months or more, rather than switching to cow’s milk or other drinks at one year.

Consider avoiding the vitamin K injection
Babies are purposely born with low levels of vitamin K, which is meant to increase gradually through feedings of breast milk, which is deliberately “low” in vitamin K. This tightly managed vitamin K level controls the rate of cellular reproduction. When infants are injected with the huge amount of vitamin K routinely given at birth, cellular reproduction is allowed to get out of hand. Some slight increase in leukemia cases is associated with these injections.

On the other hand, serious damage from a rare bleeding problem may be prevented by vitamin K injections at birth. A baby born with an undetected liver disorder can suffer damaging or fatal bleeding into the brain, and the clotting action of added vitamin K can reduce this bleeding.

Studies have shown that breastfed babies can be supplemented in smaller oral doses spread out over the first weeks of life and still safely avoid this rare but dangerous bleeding complication. Formulas are already supplemented with much higher levels of vitamin K than are found in breast milk. Studies suggest that this gradually supplemented amount of vitamin K is also adequate to prevent bleeding problems, negating the need for routine injection at birth. In the absence of known bleeding disorders, avoiding the potentially dangerous injection of vitamin K for infants who are fed formula from birth may decrease the rare but serious risk of leukemia.

Take immune-protective measures
Because formula-fed infants miss out on the daily provisions of immunities and chemical defenses from mother’s milk, you should do all you can to assure your baby gets the best possible dose of antibodies from your body before birth. The greatest portion of these immunoglobulins are pumped into the newborn’s body during labor. A child born via scheduled cesarean section misses out on labor and its last-minute provisions. Even when a C-section is recommended, natural labor can often be allowed to happen first, giving your baby a big, important immunity boost.

Newborns are susceptible to illness, and the first weeks of life are the most dangerous. Simply keeping your baby close to home and screening visitors for any illnesses can help a great deal. Visitors should wear a snug mask if they’ve recovered from a virus less than 3 days prior to their visit.

Try just a little bit
When physical limitations or lifestyle circumstances may not allow for continued breastfeeding, supplying breast milk in the first few weeks of life can provide your baby with a large edge on health and survival, especially if he was born early or tiny. The first milk, called colostrum, is especially full of immune-providing, protective factors.

If you plan to formula feed by a certain date, your baby can benefit greatly if you avoid using formula supplements at all until it is nearly time for the switch. Any amount of formula supplementation weakens the advantages of the breast milk. American infants who are fed formula from birth enjoy more than a 99% survival rate; that rate is even higher when some early breast milk is received, growing proportionally with the amount of breast milk received to about 99.5% for fully breastfed infants.

If you cannot produce milk, you may be able to obtain donor milk from milk banks and occasionally directly from donating mothers. Long-term use of donor milk can be expensive and complicated, but short-term use could be a powerful investment in the future of your child.

You can go back
There are occasions when a parent feels that formula is just not working well for a particular child. Intolerance to all forms of formula is usually the dilemma involved. Relactation is a viable yet seldom-mentioned consideration in these situations. I saw one occasion in which a child developed an illness that could respond much better to breast milk feedings, so the mother decided to give relactation a try. With the assistance of a lactation consultant, relactation works fairly well or very well for most mothers who are determined to succeed.

Find resources for Relactation and Adoptive Nursing at KellyMom.com.

Editor’s note: This article is a much-anticipated follow-up to Dr. Palmer’s groundbreaking report on the the deadly influence of formula in America, published in December at Natural Family Online. While NFO strongly encourages breastfeeding for all babies, it is our intent to support and encourage optimal health for both breastfed and formula-fed infants.

Dr. Linda Folden Palmer consults and lectures on natural infant health, optimal child nutrition and attachment parenting. After running a successful chiropractic practice focused on nutrition and women’s health for more than a decade, Linda’s life became transformed eight years ago by the birth of her son. Her research into his particular health challenges led her to write Baby Matters: What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Caring for Your Baby. Extensively documented, this healthy parenting bookpresents the scientific evidence behind attachment parenting practices, supporting baby’s immune system, preventing colic and sparing drug usage. You can visit Linda’s web site at www.babyreference.com.

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