Both breastfeeding and pumping are excellent ways to feed a baby breast milk. Breast milk is the natural food for infants, and pumping can offer benefits that are similar, although not identical, to providing breast milk directly from the breast.
Human breast milk is biologically designed to meet a baby’s nutritional needs, and many doctors recommend breast milk rather than feeding with formula.
Still, people should choose the feeding strategy or combination of strategies that work best for them and the infant, while taking account of the pros and cons of both breastfeeding and pumping, if necessary.
People do not have to choose exclusively between pumping and breastfeeding, as many of those who breastfeed a baby or infant decide to pump at times, as well.
Breastfeeding offers many health and cognitive benefits to babies and reduces the risks of several long-term health issues in both the woman and the baby.
Some of the benefits of feeding a baby directly from the breast include the following:
1. Customized food for baby
Breast milk is customized food for a baby based on feedback from the baby’s body. Letting a baby feed at the breast allows its saliva to interact with the milk. This interaction sends messages to the woman’s brain about what the baby needs.
According to a 2013 study, this interaction between the breastfeeding woman and the baby ensures the baby gets the nutrients required, as well as antibodies that can protect against infections.
The breast milk has specific components if the baby is premature and changes composition as it ages. The milk also changes according to the time of day and even during a given feeding.
2. A natural feedback loop
Milk production follows a rule of supply and demand. The breasts produce more milk when the baby breastfeeds more. Allowing this natural feedback loop to control milk supply ensures that the child has enough milk but does not experience an oversupply.
Feeding a baby on demand at the breast rather than pumping to a schedule can encourage a continuing milk supply, and ensure a long and healthy feeding relationship.
3. Convenience and affordability
Breastfeeding is not free, in the strictest sense, as it requires significant labor from the woman who supplies the milk.
Exclusively feeding at the breast, however, does not impose any financial costs. Breastfeeding can save a significant amount of money, depending on the local price of formula.
Breastfeeding is also more convenient, as it requires no preparation. A baby or child can feed on the breast anywhere without the need for an adult to pack bottles, find clean water, or heat formula.
4. Easy soothing
Breastfeeding can help soothe an anxious, scared, or hurt baby.
A 2016 study found that breastfeeding a baby or infant up to 12 months old may help relieve the pain of it receiving vaccinations.
Again, feeding at the breast offers a chance to soothe the baby without the need to spend money or pack supplies.
5. Bonding time
Breastfeeding puts a woman and the baby in close skin-to-skin contact. This close contact can support bonding, help the two learn one another’s cues and personalities, and promote relaxation.
Numerous studies have shown that newborn babies have a strong physiological need to be in close contact with a caregiver. Physiological contact may even offer lifesaving benefits for newborns.
A 2014 review of accepted practice shows that skin-to-skin contact following birth can reduce the risk of hypothermia, reduce stress, and may help babies sleep. Breastfeeding a baby encourages this close contact.
Babies who feed exclusively on pumped milk do not get the benefit of a feedback loop between their body and the breast milk. However, they do still gain access to a well-designed food that is rich in healthful fats and antibodies.
The benefits of pumping milk include the following:
1. Control over timing
By pumping milk, caregivers can control the timing of feedings. They can decide on a schedule that works for them and pump when necessary based on that schedule.
Controlling the timing of feedings can facilitate a return to work and potentially free up more time.
2. Ability to share feedings
It may be easier for people to split caregiving duties if they choose pumping over breastfeeding.
When only one person breastfeeds, that individual must handle the many feeds a baby demands, often including several nighttime wakings.
Sharing the feeding may promote a positive balance of childcare duties. The ability to share feeding may also offer some convenience and help the person who is breastfeeding feel more rested.
This ability to share feedings can be especially beneficial in the immediate postpartum period, when caregivers may be exhausted and recovering from childbirth.
If possible, parents and caregivers should not introduce a bottle until breastfeeding is well established.
3. Addressing supply issues
Pumping breast milk is one way to address breast milk supply issues. Some people choose to pump after each breastfeeding session to increase their supply. Pumping can also help build a freezer stash of milk if a person is concerned about low supply.
4. More breaks
Pumping allows the caregivers to have a break while they are coping with months, or even years, of sleep deprivation. Recovering from childbirth can be also be challenging, as can managing the time demands of caring for a baby or infant.
Pumping and storing breast milk can allow caregivers to go out for a few hours, go on a date night, or even go on vacation while still leaving behind enough food for their baby.
If a person is working then pumping their breast milk allows those who are caring for the baby to offer them the same healthful breast milk.
5. Donor milk
Biological parents are not the only people who can supply breast milk. Some babies receive breast milk from donors.
An adopted baby might receive donor milk. Similarly, a person who cannot produce enough milk might supplement their supply with milk from a milk bank. The pumped milk may be the only way for some babies to get breast milk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasize that all babies should get human milk and recommend exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. But when a woman cannot produce milk, pumped milk from a donor is a better option than formula.
There are milk banks available that ensure the milk is safe to use, as breast milk can transfer some illnesses.
Some of the challenges of breastfeeding include:
1. Less control over timing
When a baby breastfeeds, a woman must feed the baby when it is hungry. It can be more difficult to establish a regular schedule when the breast is the source of food and is always available. Breastfed babies are fed on demand, not on a schedule.
2. Sore nipples and other ailments
Many women experience sore, cracked, or even infected nipples while breastfeeding. While this can also happen with pumping, a poor latch of the baby and the intense suction of breastfeeding is more likely to cause nipple pain than pumping.
3. Issues with the balance of labor
People may experience an imbalance of labor when one caregiver takes sole responsibility for feeding the baby.
Infants eat many times each day, and this can leave the person who is breastfeeding with very little time.
Pumping milk is the better choice compared to formula, but it does not offer as many health and immune system benefits.
Some drawbacks of pumping breast milk include:
1. Fewer immune system benefits
There is not a feedback loop between the baby and the breast milk when a woman exclusively pumps their milk or uses donor milk.
Pumping means the milk may not be as tailored to the baby’s needs at any one moment, and so it will potentially offer fewer benefits for the immune system.
2. Additional expense
Exclusively breastfeeding is free, but pumping requires equipment. Pumping equipment may include:
- breast pump
- milk storage bags
- phalanges for the breast pump
- a hands-free pumping bra
Some people also invest in an additional refrigerator and freezer to store pumped milk.
3. Privacy and convenience concerns
Taking a breast pump on vacation, to work, or on a family outing can be inconvenient. While it is possible to discreetly breastfeed in public, expressing milk with a noisy pump can be more difficult.
Some adults find that pumping offers less privacy and is more inconvenient, especially when they exclusively pump on a regular schedule.
4. Storage concerns
Some women can express a large supply of breast milk. Breast milk expires even when frozen, and storing it can be difficult.
Finding an appropriate way to save milk and keeping track of what order to use it in can be challenging.
A woman may breastfeed a baby when they are home and pump at night to build up a supply of milk for when they are away. The only right choice is the one that works best for the individual.
Some factors to take into account when deciding to pump or breastfeed may include the following:
- The support of family, friends, and partners, and how that support, or lack of it, might make one choice easier than the other.
- Being able to maintain an ample supply of milk by breastfeeding or having pumped milk available.
- Balancing the benefits of breastfeeding with the benefits of a caregiver having time to themselves.
- Whether it is important that people other than the breastfeeding woman can feed the baby.
- Whether they are using donor milk.
- Whether they are supplementing breast milk with formula.
Both breastfeeding and giving a baby pumped breast milk offer extensive health benefits. Pumping and breastfeeding also require a significant commitment from the person providing the milk.
There is no right or wrong answer, and it is important to consider the effects of each way of feeding on both the woman and the baby.
How might my feeding strategy affect my health? What about my baby’s health?
The ideal way to feed a baby is at the breast where there is an interaction between the baby and the person’s breast. Supply and demand, as well as bacteria-fighting elements in the breast milk, respond to the baby being on the breast. Pumping the breast is also a good choice, but the breast will not be able to respond to the baby directly. Breast milk is the ideal food for the first 6 months of life, and breastfeeding provides life-long benefits to the adult and baby. These benefits increase the longer a person breastfeeds. I recommend breastfeeding for at least a year for the best health benefits.
Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.