One of the first warnings new mothers hear is that offering babies formula soon after birth can lead to problems with breast-feeding. Sating infants' hunger with formula can prevent them from nursing vigorously, interfering with milk production; letting them use a bottle and nipple can interfere with their ability to latch properly at the breast.
Some research has shown that mothers who offer formula in the hospital stop breast-feeding sooner than mothers who don't.
But a new study, published online Monday by the journal Pediatrics, suggests that there are situations in which limited formula use might actually help some mothers breast-feed their children for a longer period of time, perhaps by smoothing their path through the difficult period immediately following birth.
In the couple of days it takes for milk production to ramp up, some babies lose weight or seem hungry and unhappy - and mothers can get discouraged.
University of California-San Francisco pediatrician and researcher Dr. Valerie Flaherman and colleagues conducted their small, randomized trial with 40 infants, all of whom had lost at least 5 percent of their birth weight within their first 36 hours of life.
The babies were randomized into two groups. Half were given 10 milliliters of formula, administered with a syringe, after each breast-feeding session with their mothers. Formula feeding ended once the mothers' milk came in.
The other half of the babies continued breast-feeding exclusively. When the researchers noted feeding progress at a one-week assessment, only two of the 20 babies who had received the syringe feedings had received formula in the previous 24 hours; among 19 control babies, nine had. Three months after birth, 79 percent of the babies who had the early formula feedings were breast-feeding exclusively, while 42 percent of the control babies were.
The keys to this success, the team suggested, may have been the strict limitations placed on the formula feeding: The infants were not given enough to satisfy their appetite for breast milk.