Breastmilk versus cow's milk: no contest

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

June 2007

Cow's milk is great for baby cows. It's not so great for baby humans. For the first few million years of human existence mothers had no choice; it was breastmilk or starvation for their infant. Obviously, since the human race survived and thrived, it was a rare woman who could not breastfeed. If a mother died in childbirth or was otherwise unable to breastfeed her own infant there was usually another woman who could. Before the modern era women of childbearing age were usually either pregnant or lactating for most of those years. It was a rare band or tribe that had no wet nurse available.

Every mammalian species produces milk that is unique for its offspring. The system has been so fine-tuned over more than 100,000 generations that the composition of breastmilk changes on a daily basis as the infant grows and its nutritional requirements change. Compare that with today's cow's milk formula in which any departure from uniformity is considered poor quality control!

The earliest milk that a new mother produces is chock-full of antibodies, immune substances that protect her newborn against germs of all kinds. As a child begins to develop his or her own defenses against viruses, bacteria and parasites there are fewer antibodies in milk, and other nutrients are present that are needed for later stages of growth. Antibodies in milk are not generic; they are specific. That is, they represent a defense against those germs that are particularly common in the infant's geographic area and to which the mother has been exposed during her own lifetime.

Human milk has another ingredient that no manufactured infant formula can duplicate: living cells. These actually take up residence in the infant's body and help to program its immune system, a phenomenon that will persist long after weaning is complete.

The brain and eyes are important to human survival and both structures need large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in order to reach their full potential. Breastfed infants continue to receive these nutrients after they are born but formula-fed infants don't. Intelligence scores and visual capability are both higher in infants that are breastfed compared with those that are not. The differences are not dramatic but they are consistent.

Breastfed babies rarely develop allergy to mother's milk and they are less likely to have allergies of any kind.

The twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes that threaten to bankrupt the health care system of most Western countries would be lessened if all babies were breastfed exclusively for at least six months. Obesity is a complex issue but it's clear that it can begin early. It's normal for a formula-feeding mother to urge her infant to empty the bottle but breastfeeding moms don't try to get their babies to empty the breast because they can't see how much is left. When external cues such as a mother's encouragement to drain the bottle override the baby's own appetite, the tendency is for the child to take in more calories than are needed for normal growth and development. Carried over from feeding to feeding for several months the outcome is that formula fed infants weigh more, a condition that does carry over into later years.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.