Posted tagged ‘breast feeding’

Breastfeeding increases the risk of newborn readmission. Now what do we do?

January 9, 2019

The Pediatric Insider

© 2019 Roy Benaroch, MD

An August 2018 paper in Academic Pediatrics found an unsettling conclusion: breast-fed newborns have about double the risk of needing to be hospitalized in their first month of life, compared to babies who were formula-fed. The numbers are solid, and they jibe with the real-life experience of many pediatricians, including me. So what should we do about it?

The study itself looked at about 150,000 healthy, normal newborns born in Northern California hospitals from 2009 to 2013. The study authors were able to collect data on how these babies were fed in the few days following birth from hospital records (dividing them into groups of all-breast, all-formula, and a mixed group that did some of both.) They were then able to track these babies over the first month of their lives to see which ones ended up hospitalized for any reason. Most of the hospitalizations were related to dehydration and jaundice, which are closely linked to inadequate feeding.

The good news is that relatively few of these babies ended up back in the hospital – whether bottle-fed, breast-fed, or both, most babies did great. But babies who were breast-fed were much more likely than formula-feeders to end up underfed and hospitalized. Among vaginal deliveries, the risk of rehospitalization was 2.1% for bottle-fed babies versus 4.3% for breast-fed babies (the risk for mixed feeders was in between.) That’s about double the risk. Mathematically, the “number needed to harm” was 45. That is, for every 45 babies exclusively breast fed, one extra baby would end up in the hospital. Not good.

Among Caesarian births, the differential was less, with an increased risk of hospitalization of 2.1% (breast) versus 1.5% (formula). Both of these numbers are lower than the risk of rehospitalization for vaginal deliveries, probably because c-section babies already spend an extra day or two in the hospital. This provides more time for good feeding to be established (whether breast, bottle, or both.)

Does this mean we should discourage breast feeding? Of course not. Most breast-fed babies do great, and there are some health advantages of breastfeeding. But we need to be honest with ourselves, and honest with moms who are trying to do the best thing for their babies. Nursing isn’t perfect. It’s not a perfect food*, and it’s not a perfect method. There are pros and cons to both nursing and formula feeding, and parents (and babies) deserve an honest appraisal.

Nursing moms also need support. That includes “technical support” (ie “How to do it”) but also emotional and medical support – which should include time for rest, and an honest evaluation of how both moms and babies are doing. There is a role for formula, both for moms who choose to use it and for situations where babies aren’t getting enough to eat. Families, pediatricians, nurses, and lactation specialists all need to work together, without guilt or finger-pointing, to help keep babies and moms healthy.

*Human breast milk is an inadequate source of vitamin D from birth, and an inadequate source of iron by 4-6 months of life.


Can more vitamin D improve the health of nursing moms and babies?

February 11, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

“Breast is best” is a simple, catchy phrase—but to be honest, it’s one that should be followed by a bunch of asterisks and qualifiers. Some mother-baby pairs have a hard time with nursing, and need support and understanding (rather than a simple dismissal of their concerns.) And breast milk, we know, isn’t a great source of absorbable iron, which is especially an issue for premature babies. But the biggest drawback of human breastmilk, compared with commercial formula, is that it is an inadequate source of vitamin D.

A new study shows that this doesn’t have to be the case. Perhaps insufficient vitamin D isn’t really a fundamental problem with breast milk, but a problem with mom’s vitamin D intake.

Backing up a second – we’ve known for a long time that breast-fed babies are much more at-risk for nutritional rickets than formula-fed babies. This is especially true for families with dark skin. Rickets is caused by insufficient vitamin D, and can lead to poor growth, bowed limbs, and other health problems. For most of human history our vitamin D came from sunlight exposure. The skin of babies and mothers can manufacture vitamin D, though it requires sunlight to do it. Darker skin is less efficient at making vitamin D than lighter skin.

To combat the risk of insufficient vitamin D in breast-fed babies, the AAP has recommended a daily vitamin D supplement, starting from birth. In practice, this recommendation is followed maybe 20% of the time. Parents don’t like to give their newborns medicine, and I think pediatricians are reluctant to focus on the possible inadequacies of human breast milk.

In the current study, researchers sought to determine if giving higher doses of vitamin D to nursing moms could result in enough vitamin transfer in their milk. 334 mother-infant pairs were recruited, and randomized into three groups. In group one, moms were given an ordinary vitamin supplement, and their babies a vitamin D supplement (400 IU/day, matching the current recommendation.) In group 2, the babies were given no extra D, but moms took 2400 IU/day; in group three, moms were given 6400 IU each day. Babies and moms underwent regular blood and urine tests to see if these doses resulted in good vitamin D levels in the babies, and to see if these doses caused any metabolic problems with vitamin D, phosphorus, or calcium metabolism.

There was a relatively high drop-out rate—of the original 334 pairs, just 148 stuck with the plan for exclusive breastfeeding, and were thus able to complete the trial (families who discontinued breastfeeding or added formula supplements were not included in the final analysis.)

All of the babies who received regular supplementation had robust vitamin D levels and normal biochemical testing – we know, if that 400 IU a day for babies is given, it works. That was group 1. Group 2, where moms were given vitamin D 2400 IU/day,  was a failure—they actually stopped this arm of the study early, because many of the babies in this group did not have adequate vitamin D levels on their blood tests. But the babies in group 3 – who themselves received no direct vitamin D supplements, but whose moms got 6400 IU/day—did as well as group 1, with perfectly good vitamin D levels and no evidence for any side effects or problems. And, bonus, their moms also benefitted, with normal vitamin D levels and no side effects.

A reasonable question, though—is 6400 IU of D a day safe for moms to take? A prior guideline from the Institute of Medicine had suggested an upper limit of 2000 IU/day (though that has since been increased to 4000); the Endocrine Society now sets their upper limit at 10,000. During the past decade many studies have used adult D supplementation in the range of thousands of units per day, and according to the authors of this paper not a single adverse event was observed.

This study supports a safe alternative for families, and perhaps one that’s easier to do. Moms are used to taking prenatal vitamins, and continuing to take them while nursing. Adding 6,000 IU of D to the typical 400 in a prenatal isn’t expensive, and seems to be safe and effective at making sure their babies get enough D. Breast milk can have enough D – but only if mom gets her own supplement.

Bear and sun

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.