Among the benefits of breastfeeding vs. infant formula are higher test scores and IQs, in addition to less problems with asthma, allergies, ear infections, and SIDS.
What makes breast milk better than formula?
It has long been known that one of the components of breast milk that has been absent from infant formulas are the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs), including DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA or ARA (arachidonic acid).
All infants do receive some DHA and AA through the placenta before they are born, although preterm infants receive less than term infants, and infants are able to make some DHA and AA themselves. However, it is not generally believed that they can make enough DHA and AA to keep up with their growing body's demands.
Both DHA and AA are thought to be necessary for "optimal development of the visual and central nervous system".* They are found in high levels in the brain and retina of the eye, and infants fed breast milk or an infant formula supplemented with DHA and AA have been found to have higher levels of these substances than infants fed unsupplemented formula.
Recently, the FDA approved the supplementing of term infant formulas with DHA and AA by Mead Johnson Nutritionals (makers of Enfamil). This formula will be marketed under the name Enfamil LIPIL. Other large formula companies, including Ross (the makers of Similac) and 'store brand' formulas are also now making their own LCPUFA supplemented formulas.
Does supplementing formula with DHA and AA make a difference in a child's visual function and/or cognitive and behavioral development? According to some studies, yes it does. However, other studies showed no difference. And whether these advantages will last through later childhood or into adulthood is unknown. Even Mead Johnson is rather tame in their own marketing, stating that Enfamil LIPIL "may help to support babies' mental and visual development".
All studies, however, did show that there were no harmful or negative effects of supplementing infant formulas with DHA and AA. And formula has been supplemented with DHA and AA for many years in Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and Australia.
Is this an exciting new breakthrough? I think I would be more excited if someone came up with a way to encourage more mothers to breastfeed and to breastfeed for longer periods of time. Still, I am happy that Mead Johnson Nutritionals is not marketing Enfamil LIPIL to be 'as good as breastmilk'. Clearly, breastmilk offers many other benefits besides having DHA and AA in it and I doubt many mothers will give up breastfeeding because they think that LIPIL is 'just as good'. And the added publicity about the benefits of DHA and AA in a child's development may actually encourage more mothers to breastfeed.
And a preterm formula with DHA and AA would be even more exciting, since these babies would likely benefit even more than term babies. Fortunately, those are now available, including EnfaCare LIPIL from Mead Johnson.
Initially, Enfamil LIPIL wasn't for every child. At first, it was available only as a cow's milk based formula, similar to regular iron fortified Enfamil. It was not available as a lactose free, soy or elemental formula, so if your child has a lactose intolerance, a soy protein or a cow's milk protein allergy or intolerance, then he likely won't tolerate Enfamil LIPIL. Mead Johnson, and the other formula companies, have now introduced DHA and ARA supplemented formulas for their soy, lactose free, and elemental formula, so you should be able to find a formula for your baby even if they have some kind of an intolerance.
For those children that are not breastfeeding, Enfamil LIPIL will likely be a good alternative to other infant formulas. Making a formula more like breastmilk will hopefully give those children who are unable to breastfeed some of the benefits of breastfeeding and help promote their optimal growth and development.
* Heird, William C: The Role of Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids in Term and Preterm Infants and Breastfeeding Mothers. Pediatric Clinics of North America, Vol 48, No 1, February 2001.