Archive for the ‘Nutrition’ category

The economic benefits of breastfeeding: A call for honesty

December 15, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Lookie here: I am a breastfeeding supporter. I regularly help new moms breastfeed successfully, and I even took special class to learn how to do a brief procedure to help babies overcome breastfeeding problems caused by tongue-tie. I’ve got a happy breast support sticker, right on my AAP card.

But I think honesty is (or should be) the breast policy. Some women and babies find nursing to be difficult, and some moms don’t want to nurse, and some moms, yes, don’t make enough milk to fulfill the health needs of their babies. Other moms or babies have their own health problems that prevent effective breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is not in any way an essential part of raising a healthy and happy kiddo—at least in the developed world, we’ve got great, healthful substitutes for mother’s milk. Babies do not have to be nursed to be loved and raised in a healthy manner, and moms who don’t nurse don’t need more pressure or guilt.

So I have mixed feelings when I read studies like this one. Researchers in Great Britain published a study in October 2014, “Potential economic impacts from improving breastfeeding rates in the UK.” They used computer models to look at the savings reached by preventing diseases in children that have higher rates in formula-fed kids, including ear infections and GI problems ($17 million a year); they also added in savings from having to treat fewer women for breast cancer ($50 million a year, estimating current exchange rates). At first glance, those savings figures look modest—that’s because the effect of breastfeeding on preventing breast cancer and childhood infections in developed countries like Great Britain is really quite small. But let’s accept those figures as they are. The bigger problem I see is that the authors made no attempt to quantify the economic costs of breastfeeding.

We should be honest, here. We know that breastfeeding is the major risk factor for hypernatremic dehydration, which has been estimated to occur in about 2% of term newborns. This is caused by inadequate fluid intake in a newborn, and can cause seizures, brain damage, and death; it usually requires hospitalization to treat. And breastfeeding is also a major factor leading to health consequences from newborn jaundice, including hearing loss and later learning problems. The authors of this paper didn’t try to quantify the costs of these health problems, any more than they tried to look at the economic impact of breastfeeding on family finances or a woman’s career.

Like all pediatricians, I think it’s best for babies if they’re breastfed. But we’re not doing anyone any favors by exaggerating the benefits of nursing, either in terms of economics or health. We do need good social supports and laws to protect the rights of women to nurse in public and at their jobs; but we don’t need formula feeding to be a mark of poor parenting. Honest information is what parents need. Can we stop the hyperbole?

Homemade infant formula is not a good idea

September 15, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

Miranda wrote in with a topic suggestion—she wanted to know about homemade infant formula. She had noticed a lot of people suggesting it. What’s the deal?

Speaking about nutrition and human babies, it makes sense to start with this: human breast milk, from mom, is the best food for babies. But even that is an over-simplification. It turns out that in the modern world, human breast milk is often deficient in vitamin D, and maybe iron, too. I know I’m going to get some heat over this, but it’s true: even human breast milk isn’t “perfect.” It’s close, but if we’re going to be honest, even straight-up mom’s milk isn’t “ideal” for babies.

So what’s the best alternative? The contestants: human breast milk, which we’ll just call “human milk.” Commercial infant formula, which we’ll call “science milk.” This is the stuff that’s been studied for years, and is lab-designed to give babies the exact nutrition they need to thrive. Then there’s home-mixed infant formula, which we’ll call “homemade milk”, usually prepared based on an internet recipe.  What kind of “grade” should we give our three competitors, based on an objective assessment of their composition?

The number one “ingredient”, so to speak, is water. Clean, pure, safe water. Human milk, fresh from the breast, is free of harmful contaminants and infectious germs. Science milk is made under sterile conditions, and the liquid versions are pasteurized—as long as they’re stored correctly, there’s essentially no risk of infections spreading. Homemade milk? Who knows. I doubt anyone at home is sterilizing all of their surfaces to the extent done in a commercial lab. And some of the homemade milk recipes call for unpasteurized, “raw” milk—which can be loaded with animal colon bacteria as has been linked to all sorts of colorful infections. Winners: human milk and science milk (tie); loser: homemade milk.

Then there’s protein. There’s too much protein of the wrong kind in most mammal milks (including cow and goat), so science milk relies on modified mammal milk or soy to get the right amounts of the right kind of proteins. The wrong proteins can cause intestinal and kidney damage. One homemade milk recipe I found used blenderized livers as a protein source, which is even more dangerous. Human milk, protein-wise, is perfect. Winner: human milk, with science milk a close second. Loser: homemade milk.

The carbohydrate in all mammal’s milks is mostly lactose. Goats, humans, cows—our milk is all lactose-based. Science formulas sometimes substitute other carbs, largely to take advantage of the fear of lactose intolerance (which doesn’t occur in human newborns.) There’s no known downside to this, though it’s kind of silly. Winner: tie! Lipids (fats) are pretty much the same across the board, or near-enough so.

Sodium: ordinary milk from other mammals (goats and cows and presumably kangaroos, though I honestly don’t know about them) has far, far too much sodium. To properly reduce this, homemade formulas have to dilute that out somehow. Winners: human and science formulas.

Other micronutrients: there are a lot of these, of course—iodine and vitamin C and vitamin D and iron. And these really are important. Iron deficiency in infancy can contribute to permanent cognitive problems. You really do want to make sure that Junior is getting all of these vitamins and minerals in the exact proportions needed. The micronutrient content of human milk has been extensively studied, and science formula does a great job in either copying that, or even improving on that (re: iron and vitamin D.) Winner, science formula, by a nose; human milk is a very close second. Homemade formula are based on dozens or maybe hundreds of recipes, and no one has systematically figured out which if any actually deliver the micronutrients that are needed.

 Here’s a funny, true story from my residency: an 8 month old baby was admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit, near death. (Wait, it gets funnier.) He was very, very anemic—I remember noticing when drawing blood from his nearly lifeless body that the blood itself was kind of watery and runny. He also had neurologic problems and his vital organs had shut down. It turns out that his father was traveling hours a day, back and forth, to a farm to pick up fresh goat’s milk to feed him (because his parents had heard that goat’s milk was healthy!) Since goat’s milk is entirely deficient in one of the B vitamins (folate), the child’s blood marrow pretty much shut down. And there were a whole bunch of other health consequences related to other nutrient deficiencies and protein overload. After a few weeks in the ICU the baby survived. Isn’t that a funny story? No, of course it isn’t. It isn’t funny at all.

Ease of use and preparation: human milk wins, here, of course—though it has to be said, not always. Some women really do have a hard time nursing. It’s not always the easiest choice. Fortunately, we have another reasonably easy alternative: science milk. Mix the powder with water in the right proportion, and you’ve got pretty much exactly what your baby needs. The worst choice, here, would be homemade milk: it’s complicated and fiddly, has a lot of ingredients to get wrong, and it still may not even provide the nutrition your baby needs.

Homemade infant formula is a terrible idea. There is no way for parents to make something as pure and complete as either human milk or commercial infant formula (science milk.) There’s no evidence whatsoever that it even might be safer or better in any tangible way. This is one case where homemade is not the way to go. If you’re not breastfeeding, you should use commercial infant formula. Do not trust your baby’s health on your chemistry skills and recipes from the internet.

Breastfeeding and post-partum depression: A possible cure, a possible cause

September 3, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

An August, 2014 British study comes to two seemingly opposite conclusions: in some women, breastfeeding can protect against depression; while in other women breastfeeding seems to increase the risk of depression. It all depends on what mom’s intentions had been.

The study is complicated, and has a lot of tables—but they’ve kindly made it open-access, so you can read it yourself in detail (click the Download PDF button after the link, above.) Briefly, researchers looked at about 14,000 births, and tracked measures of mental health during pregnancy and periodically afterwards. They also tracked whether women tried or didn’t try to breastfeed, and how long breastfeeding continued. And, they kept track of what women had said their intentions to breastfeed had been prior to delivery. Results were corrected for things like socioeconomic factors and the health of the baby, since we know those have a big effect on the risk of post-partum depression.

The women who didn’t intend to breastfeed, and didn’t end up breastfeeding, were used as the comparison group, and the relative risks of post-partum depression were determined. What they found was fascinating:

Among women who intended to breastfeed, and who did in fact successfully breast feed, the risk of depression was cut in half. This effect was strongest for longer-duration nursing. The authors postulate that the beneficial effect of nursing in this group was conveyed by hormonal factors released during nursing.

Unfortunately, those positive hormonal factors were not seen in all women. Among women who had planned to breastfeed, but were in fact unable to nurse sucessfully, the risk of depression more than doubled. Most women who try to nurse find nursing a successful experience, but women who don’t meet their own expectations seem especially vulnerable to depression.

And: among women who didn’t plan to breastfeed, but did in fact end up breastfeeding anyway, the risk of depression was also increased. Perhaps these women, who hadn’t wanted or planned to nurse, felt bullied or coerced into nursing?

The obstetric and pediatric communities are fully in support of breastfeeding, which offers medical and psychological advantages to most women and their babies. But we need to acknowledge that nursing can be difficult, and that women who don’t nurse are still capable, good moms—they don’t need scorn or dirty looks when they use baby formula. It’s a shame that moms who are providing love, nurturing, and good nutrition though a bottle may be at higher risk of depression. We can do better than this.

Eat peanuts during pregnancy to prevent allergies

April 14, 2014

The Pediatric Insider

© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD

It wasn’t that long ago that the usual advice to prevent food allergies was to avoid or delay certain foods. Now, the pendulum has fully swung over to the other side. As more and more evidence accumulates, it’s becoming clear that the way to prevent allergy is by exposures, not avoidance. Immune systems need to see allergens early to develop tolerance.

I’ve recently written about studies that show that at least some cases of peanut allergy can be overcome by gradual, graded consumption of peanuts. We also know that some food allergies are less likely to occur if babies eat things like grains and eggs beginning at around four to six months of age (this is likely true for other allergens, like peanut and fish, though the evidence isn’t as strong.) Now a new study shows that exposures from before birth can help a developing baby’s immune system learn to tolerate food proteins.

Researchers in Boston prospectively followed 8200 children, born from 1990 to 1994. Among the group, 140 became allergic to peanut or tree nuts (about 2%, which may strike you as low—but that’s the rate of allergy when strict criteria and independent assessments are used rather than parental reports alone.) They then compared the maternal diets during pregnancy between children who became allergic, versus those that did not. Among moms who themselves were not allergic to peanut, eating more peanuts and tree nuts more frequently during pregnancy was associated with a dramatically decreased risk of later allergy in their offspring. The reduced risk was probably in the range of 25-75%. Not bad for an intervention that’s cheap and safe.

Of course, moms who are themselves peanut allergic should not consume peanuts. In the study, nut-allergic moms who ate nuts were not more or less likely to have nut-allergic children than nut-allergic moms who avoided nuts.

The immune system is complicated, and the development of food and other allergies depends both genetic and environmental factors. But it’s clear that we can’t just run away from foods in the hopes that we won’t become allergic. Moms who are not allergic to food should enjoy a rich, varied diet throughout pregnancy, including peanuts and tree nuts. Nursing moms should eat what they’d like. Starting at four to six months, little babies should start complementary foods, including basically anything they’d like off of their parent’s plate, mushed up and tasty. Want to avoid food allergies? Eat.

When to start solid foods, and what to start with

November 11, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

I like writing about food and feeding issues, especially for babies and toddlers—mostly because there is so much misinformation out there, information that’s complex and confusing and difficult for anyone to keep straight. Start avocados at 33 weeks, start egg whites at 42 weeks, move from stage 1 to stage 2 jars after baby gets 1 ½ teeth. Rules, rules, rules.

All that stuff is a crock. Feeding babies is much simpler.

When to start solids: somewhere between 4 -6 months of age is an ideal window. Babies are happy to meet new things and have new experiences then, and they’re really interested in what you’re eating. So give them a taste.

There’s plenty of medical evidence that 4-6 months is an ideal time. You’ll minimize your child’s risk of celiac and type 1 diabetes, and provide essential iron and vitamin D that’s inadequately supplied by nursing alone. Starting earlier than this window seems to increase the future risk of obesity; starting later can lead to problems with oral motor functioning, and can increase the risk of food allergies.

What foods to start with: anything you like. The old advice, to start with (and stick with) rice cereal never made any sense. There’s nothing magic about rice cereal.

The only requirement for first foods is that it can be mushed up. Junior isn’t going to chew anything just yet, so whatever you’re feeding him needs to be, essentially (but not literally) pre-chewed. You can start with a banana or avocado, and mash it up with a fork; you can start with some well-cooked noodles, and mush them up; you can start with some soup vegetables, or a bit of egg, or ground meat, or just about anything else. Don’t be afraid of flavor, and don’t limit yourself to what the baby food companies put in jars.

The only foods to watch out for are choking hazards, foods that are too stiff or unmushable for babies to handle. Think steak, pecans, raw vegetables, or Al Gore.

There’s also a special admonishment against honey for babies less than 12 months of age, because it can transmit botulism in babies. That’s a really short list of things that babies shouldn’t be fed.

If you like, you can start with a single food and build up from there, starting a new food every few days. That’s been advised for years, to help parents tell which foods might have caused which reaction. But most babies will not have food allergies; and most food reactions in babies are mild. If there is a strong family history of genuine food allergies (say, in both parents or in siblings), you can take feeding slowly, one food at a time—but it is probably a mistake to delay solids altogether. Remember: introducing foods later may increase the risk of allergy.

That’s it—it’s almost too simple. Start at 4-6 months. Start with, pretty much, whatever you’re eating, just mushed up. Let your baby enjoy many different flavors, and share the meals (and the mess!) together. Yum!

The Guide to Infant Formulas: Part 5. The Final Recommendations

September 12, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

Choices for bottle feeding are truly overwhelming. There are at least 20 different formulas out there—and I’m not even counting the special medical formulas for specific medical indications. Which one is the best for your baby?

The best “formula”, of course, is human milk. It’s cheap, it’s nutritionally super-good, and for many women it’s very convenient and easy. But it’s not for everyone. Some families like to supplement, or some families choose to bottle feed; some moms try their best but for whatever reason exclusive breastfeeding doesn’t work out. That is not a disaster, not by any means. We’ve got very good and nutritious formulas to use. Being a mom is tough enough—we don’t need to give anyone a hard time about not nursing.

So, when choosing a formula, what’s the best one to choose? Drum roll, please….

#1 for almost all bottle-fed babies

I’m giving the nod to one of any of the generic, store-brand, cow’s milk based products. They’re all fine. Save a few bucks for the college fund, or (even better) hire a babysitter with the extra $$ you would have spent on name-brand formula and go out to dinner without your baby. You deserve it.

Runner up: It’s a tie! All other ordinary cow’s milk formulas go here! Yay!

#1 if you’re avoiding cow’s milk for personal reasons

 

Any generic soy-based product, yay! The runner-up is any of the other soy products. You probably saw that coming.

#1 for fussy babies

 

It’s probably not the formula, you know. And it’s probably not a medical problem at all. Some babies are just kind of anxious or fussy, and need more holding and soothing. I like this guy’s approach. But if you’d like to try a formula change, feel free to try either a soy formula (which has different proteins) or one of the partially hydrolyzed products like Enfamil Gentlease, Similac Total Comfort, or any Gerber Good Start product. Don’t bother with any formula for lactose intolerance—I promise, that is not the problem.

#1 for babies with real protein allergy

These are babies with bloody stools or persistent vomiting or other health problems, and they ought to be monitored by a physician. Appropriate formulas for these babies are Similac Alimentum or Enfamil Nutramigen. Those formulas have very little role for any other babies, but are essential for babies with true allergy.

#1 for babies who spit up

If you really need to treat spit up (and usually you don’t), ask your pediatrician or family doc about adding rice cereal to the bottles—it’s cheap and easy and can reduce spitting. Or, you could try one of the “spit up” formulas (generic, or EnfamilAR or Similac Spit Up.) But I rarely recommend them.

Now I’ll take a few questions from the audience:

Do we really have to stick with one formula? What if I have coupons?

Most babies don’t care if you switch around. Save money, use samples and coupons. The taste might be a little different, but it’s not such a bad thing for babies to have to get used to different meals not tasting exactly alike.

Can I mix formula on my own, from scratch?

In the old days, before the wide availability of commercial formulas, people used to mix up baby formula with evaporated milk, added vitamins, and added carbohydrates or fats. Don’t mess around with any of that now—formulas are complex emulsions of many ingredients, and your baby will do much better on commercial varieties. Do not try this at home.

What about those follow-up formulas for babies after age one?

Traditionally, babies move to milk as a beverage at around age one, and stop drinking formulas. Often that’s a good age for nursing babies to wean. Really, there’s seldom any need for any specific “formula” other than a varied diet. Toddler formula is an unnecessary expense.

Are you expecting a Pulitzer for this series on infant formulas?

Not expecting, no. But it would look nice here next to my computer. Thanks for contacting the Pulitzer committee to suggest it!

The Guide to Infant Formulas

Part 1: What’s in formula?

Part 2: The Similac Products

Part 3: Enfamil and friends

Part 4: Gerber and the Generics

Part 5: The final recommendations

The Guide to Infant Formulas: Part 4. Gerber and the Generics

September 4, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

Abbot’s Similac and Mead Johnson’s Enfamil are the big players, but they’re not the only formula choices out there.

What used to be called “Nestle Good Start” is now part of the Gerber Good Start line of formulas, which are often priced just a little less than those of the two better-known formula companies.

Good Start, whether from Nestle or Gerber, has always had a slight difference from the flagship products from Similac and Enfamil: it uses partially broken down elements, which they market as “comfort proteins”. They say this is easier to digest. Their products are similar in that way and in that claim to the partially hydrolyzed Similac Total Comfort or Enfamil Gentlease—and similarly lack any good data supporting this “easy digesting” claim. Still, like all formulas, it’s nutritionally complete to the best of our knowledge.

Like the other companies, Gerber has lately jumped on the “market segmentation” bandwagon, coming out with multiple similar products to grab market share. But their products are even less dissimilar from each other. There’s Gerber Good Start Protect, which I think is their flagship. “Protect” here refers to their probiotic mix of bacteria, which per their literature “may support the protective barrier in the digestive tract.”

There’s also Good Start Soothe, which has reduced lactose—but isn’t lactose free. So it’s treating a condition that doesn’t exist (lactose intolerance in human babies) with a treatment that would be ineffective. It of course has those probiotics and things, too.

Then there’s Good Start Gentle which is based on only the whey portion of cow’s milk protein, partially hydrolyzed like other Good Start products. So you get to choose, with Good Start: Gentle, or Protect. Or Soothe. Can’t have them all!!

One more Good Start product, this one with an intuitive name: Soy. That’s right, a soy based product, with partially broken-down soy proteins that may or may not be better in some vague way. These Gerber products are all nutritionally equivalent.

The Gerber line is priced a tad lower than the Enfamil or Similac lines, but is still more expensive than generic baby formulas. Those generics, like all formulas, are tightly regulated by the FDA, and offer essentially identical nutrition.  There are generics marketed as “Premium” or “Advantage” that are similar to the flagships; there are generics often labeled as “gentle” which are similar to the partially hydrolyzed formulas Gentlease, Total Comfort, and the Gerber Line. There’s a generic lactose-free labeled “sensitive” and “tender” which seems similar to Gerber’s “gentle,” with 100% whey. Soy, organic, or even with added rice starch—the generic versions are out there, though sometimes they’re named differently. Between the generics and Gerber, that’s at least 10 more varieties of infant formula to choose from.

One formula you won’t find: “Low Iron.” There used to be Low-Iron formulas around, because iron was blamed for fussiness and constipation—despite there never having been any evidence that in the doses found in formulas, iron was causing these symptoms. What we did know what that low iron formulas were nutritionally inadequate. Iron is essential for normal brain development, and restricting iron from babies is not a good idea. The formula manufacturers quietly increased the iron in their low iron formulas several years ago, and a few years later phased them out entirely. Good.

We’ve covered a lot of formulas, and a lot of detail. So what’s the bottom line? What’s the best formula for you baby? See you next time!


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