Breastfeeding is still the best way to ensure that babies obtain the necessary nutritional intake, despite the raft of baby food products currently available. This was the conclusion of a panel of experts meeting last week at the Advances in Paediatric Nutrition Symposium in the US.
The meeting, sponsored by The Johns Hopkins Children's Nutrition Centre and the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Division of Paediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, and supported by Nestle, also witnessed a debate about the benefits of adding the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LCPUFAs) DHA and ARA to infant formulas.
These LCPUFAs are found naturally in breast milk and have been linked to brain and eye development. Recent approval by the FDA of the addition of ARA and DHA to infant food has led to a number of new products hitting the market in the last few months.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the duration of breastfeeding could have a direct effect on IQ in adults, with those being breastfed for seven to nine months having higher IQs than those breastfed for two weeks or less.
It is not known exactly why this association occurs, although "it is possible that the bonding and interaction between mother and baby that are so intimately tied to breastfeeding are just as important for intellectual development as the composition of the milk," according to Jose Saavedra, associate professor of paediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The question is, can the infant formulas containing DHA and ARA also enhance babies' learning ability? Do these new formulas offer the same advantages as breast milk? The symposium was told that as yet no long-term studies on the effectiveness of adding DHA and ARA to infant formulas have been completed, and that the addition of ARA and DHA was in any case somewhat misleading, since standard iron-supplemented formulas already contain alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid, two essential fatty acids derived from vegetable oils that healthy, full-term babies convert into DHA and ARA.
Saavedra said: "Feeding breast milk is not the same as breastfeeding. Adding one or two components of breast milk to infant formula does not necessarily mean these infants will realise the same benefits they gain from breastfeeding. Further research is needed to determine whether DHA/ARA supplementation will truly make a difference in the long run. Meanwhile, encouraging breastfeeding and breast milk feeding should continue to be our main objective."