Feeding babies: Is breast always best?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Read any report on how babies are fed in the early months of life, and you will soon come across references to the UK’s ‘dismal’, ‘troubling’, ‘low’ breastfeeding rate. Breastfeeding seems to be constantly in the news. Earlier this year, a study claimed that children who were breastfed were more likely to receive better GCSE results. In previous years, exclusive breastfeeding has been credited for higher IQ, babies who like vegetables more and less hyperactive toddlers.

‘Breast is best’ is not only promoted by the NHS and the government, it is written into law via restrictions on how formula can be marketed. Such is the preference for breastfeeding that many food banks are not allowed to provide infant formula to needy families. Supporters of breastfeeding describe formula as an ‘ultra-processed food’ which is both bad for people and the environment – pointing to previous scandals in developing nations around the marketing and use of formula milk. They argue that it is vital for nutrition and bonding between mother and baby, and that many women stop breastfeeding before they would like to because of lingering stigma around public feeding of babies.

At the moment, women clearly favour the bottle – only one per cent still breastfeed exclusively at six months, despite WHO guidelines. The fact that bottle-feeding can be shared by parents, friends and grandparents, with formula eliminating the need to pump, makes many women consider it a viable choice. When it comes to the claims for breastfeeding benefits, some point to the fact that studies on breastfeeding include confounding factors – things like education, opportunity and wider health issues – that make it impossible to prove the supremacy of breast over bottle.

Some view how to feed a baby as a practical, simple question. For others, it raises wider issues about motherhood and women’s autonomy. Should we care what way babies are fed? Is the fraught nature of the breast-is-best debate putting too much pressure on mothers? Should the formula industry’s eye-watering prices be challenged by a preference for breastfeeding? Or are those who campaign under the slogan ‘fed is best’ right to highlight the need for greater acceptance of formula milk?

Milli Hill
freelance journalist; founder, Positive Birth Movement; author, Positive Birth Book

Harriet Rudd
infant-feeding specialist; trainee Lactation Consultant

Dr Rebecca Steinfeld
independent policy advisor on infant-feeding policy and reproductive choice; co-founder, Campaign for Equal Civil Partnerships

Dr Erin Williams
senior lecturer in reproductive anatomy and physiology, University of Edinburgh; co-founder and director, Feed

Ellie Lee
professor of family and parenting research, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies