You already know that breastmilk is the ideal nutrition for newborns, and you probably know that breastfeeding has health benefits for moms, too. But have you also considered how environmentally-friendly breastfeeding is?
Breastfeeding can be hard and rewarding
First, let me take a step back. Ask any mother who has tried to breastfeed her child, and she will tell you, breastfeeding is hard. Each of us has had our struggles and varying degrees of success. For me, the initial nipple pain came as a shock. Then, I nearly quit when a cracked nipple, caused by improperly latching my newborn, refused to heal on its own. Had my doctor not provided a remedy during my postpartum checkup, I likely would have stopped breastfeeding, even though I desired to continue.
Health organization targets for breastfeeding aren’t being met in the United States
While breastfeeding may not be possible for every mother, a concerning trend has emerged. For a variety of reasons, one in six babies in the United States never receive any breastmilk, and even though the rest are at least partially breastfed at first, the proportion of babies exclusively or partially breastfed steadily drops with time. By six months of age, only about half of babies in the United States receive any breastmilk and only a quarter are exclusively breastfed.
To put that in context, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives, and that they continue breastfeeding for as long as two years and beyond. The American Heart Association recommends babies be breastfed for the first 12 months of life, with the incorporation of solid foods beginning between 4-6 months of age.
Benefits for babies and moms
As a result of the less-than-ideal rates of breastfeeding initiation and continuation in the US, many American mothers and babies are missing out on the many benefits of breastfeeding.
Babies who are breastfed have a lower risk of respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), leukemia, necrotizing enterocolitis (severe inflammation of the intestines that can lead to tissue death), and several life-long diseases, such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes, asthma, and celiac disease (gluten intolerance).
For mothers, breastfeeding lowers the risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and breast, ovarian, endometrial, and thyroid cancers. According to a 2022 study, breastfeeding, even for a short period of time, significantly decreases a mom’s risk of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke later in life. Other compelling research has found that for every 597 mothers who breastfeed, the death of one mother or child is avoided .
Given how difficult breastfeeding can be, being fully informed about these benefits is especially helpful so mothers know their struggles are not in vain. And a lesser-discussed benefit of breastfeeding that may give nursing mothers further encouragement is its eco-friendliness: for a variety of reasons, breastfeeding is better for the environment than breastmilk substitutes (more commonly known as formula).
How infant formula may harm the environment
Formula production costs
In 2020, breastfeeding advocacy organization La Leche League International’s theme of the year was “Support breastfeeding for a healthier planet.” LLLI pointed out, as others have, that infant and toddler formulas harm the environment through multiple avenues. First, most formula is made from powdered cows’ milk, and livestock are a leading producer of methane gas, which, like carbon dioxide, traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere . Caring for cows on a massive production-level scale has an impact too, as cows consume large quantities of water, and land must be cleared to house the cows.
Also, turning raw whole milk into powdered cows’ milk is an intensive process in which raw whole milk must be cooled, stored, and later separated into components that are then homogenized, pasteurized, and undergo evaporation . Finally, the components are mixed, dried, cooled, and sold as milk powder. Additionally, because powdered cows’ milk lacks adequate nutrients for a growing (human) baby, other products must be added, such as palm, coconut, rapeseed, and sunflower oils along with fungal, algal, and fish oils, and minerals and vitamins—each of which may harm the environment when produced .
In a study, researchers estimated that the carbon emissions associated with just producing powdered formula (including brands made without cows’ milk) in North America for one year was equivalent to driving a car more than 114,000 times around the Earth’s equator . It would take more than 1.3 million acres of U.S. forests (which absorb carbon dioxide) one year to offset the carbon emissions—and that’s just for North America. Another study reported the yearly carbon emissions from producing formula for six countries in the Asia Pacific region (Australia, China, India, Malaysia, Philippines, and South Korea) . Researchers found that the amount of formula used was equivalent to using 325.5 million gallons of gasoline, and would take 2.37 million acres of U.S. forests one year to offset.
Environmental costs of formula transportation, sterilization, and disposal
Of course, formula has environmental costs well beyond its production. Formula must be transported to stores for purchasing, and requires parents to sterilize bottles and water—all of which requires energy that produces carbon emissions. Then the packaging must be disposed of, and in the United States alone, an estimated 550 million infant formula cans are added to landfills each year .
Breastfeeding’s eco-friendly carbon footprint
Breastfeeding is eco-friendly because it’s hyperlocal and zero waste. Even when the production of food nursing mothers consume to get their extra 500 recommended calories/day is accounted for, breastfeeding still yields a considerably smaller carbon footprint than formula, evidence shows . You may already know that the extra fat your body stored during pregnancy can later be tapped to make breast milk, and relying on these fat stores (rather than consuming so many extra calories) may be appealing if weight loss is top of mind. While your breastmilk will always contain enough of certain nutrients (like protein and folate) to meet your baby’s needs—even if your own protein and folate stores become clinically deficient in the process—your breastmilk will only contain adequate amounts of certain other nutrients (like Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12, vitamins A,D and K) if you yourself take in enough of those nutrients.
For this reason, simply planning on your body converting fat stores into pregnancy to produce breastmilk is inadequate, because it fails to account for your and your baby’s other nutritional needs now. In order to get the health benefits of breastfeeding (and, in turn, the cost savings and decreased expenditure of human and material resources needed to address health problems that breastfeeding helps prevent), extra caloric consumption is necessary. Consult a registered dietitian (and check out Lily Nichols’ book, Real Food in Pregnancy, which we covered here) for more specific recommendations.
Given the growing environmental impact of formula, researchers from the United Kingdom penned an editorial arguing for the need to better support breastfeeding mothers . In the editorial, they explained that if mothers in just the United Kingdom breastfed their babies for 6 months, it would be the environment-protective equivalent of removing as many as 77,500 cars from the road each year.
Breastfeeding moms need their village to rally around them
It bears repeating that breastfeeding is hard. It can be painful (though this is a sign that something is wrong and needs to be addressed, not a normal finding!), time-consuming, emotionally and physically draining, and may feel overwhelming at times, especially for first-time mothers. Without adequate support from family, friends, employers, and healthcare providers, breastfeeding may simply not be possible, (and in some rare medical instances, such as with insufficient glandular tissue, it might be impossible to breastfeed). The purpose of this article isn’t to judge anyone’s choice to breastfeed or not, or to shame those who are unable to breastfeed.
The purpose, rather, is to point out that there are real health benefits for moms who breastfeed and for their babies, and the environmental benefits of breastfeeding aren’t negligible either, particularly compared to the production, transportation, and disposal costs of formula. Is its eco-friendly status the most convincing argument for breastfeeding? No, and furthermore, care for humans takes ultimate precedence over reduction of carbon emissions. Feeding a baby (whether with breastmilk or formula) is always the most important thing. The “green” aspects of breastfeeding are simply another component making a strong case for why “breast is best, unless,” for moms and their babies.*
Breastfeeding is a best practice for infant nutrition and maternal health, and for this reason women need their partners, extended family, friends, employers, and healthcare teams to support them in this worthwhile task. Mom may be the one doing the feeding, but she cannot do it alone. She needs a village to support her, as we covered in our postpartum guidebook series. Her village may provide healthy, warming meals for her and her family, assist with the care of older children, rock her baby while she sleeps, run errands, clean her house, or assist with non-feeding tasks in countless other ways, freeing her up for the physically and emotionally demanding and physically and emotionally rewarding work of breastfeeding.
*Editor’s note: Again, we recognize that there are a variety of reasons why women cannot breastfeed, or breastfeed exclusively, which can run the gamut from physical, to emotional/psychological, to social (the fact that, on average, one in four American women have to return to work at 2 weeks postpartum, which is detrimental to their own health, let alone their ability to breastfeed, speaks volumes on the lack of support new mothers face in our country). No woman should be shamed for her inability to breastfeed, regardless of the reason why, and instead, we should all be working towards a more just society that allows every mother who desires to breastfeed her baby the opportunity to do so. Such efforts would not only make for healthier moms and babies, but a healthier planet, too.
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 Bartick MC, Schwarz EB, Green BD, Jegier BJ, Reinhold AG, Colaizy TT, Bogen DL, Schaefer AJ, Stuebe AM. Suboptimal breastfeeding in the United States: Maternal and pediatric health outcomes and costs. Matern Child Nutr. 2017 Jan;13(1):e12366. doi: 10.1111/mcn.12366. Epub 2016 Sep 19. Erratum in: Matern Child Nutr. 2017 Apr;13(2):null. PMID: 27647492; PMCID: PMC6866210.
 Joffe N, Webster F, Shenker N. Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative BMJ 2019; 367 :l5646 doi:10.1136/bmj.l5646
 Cadwell K, Blair A, Turner-Maffei C, Gabel M, Brimdyr K. Powdered Baby Formula Sold in North America: Assessing the Environmental Impact. Breastfeed Med. 2020 Oct;15(10):671-679. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2020.0090. Epub 2020 Jul 31. PMID: 32758012; PMCID: PMC7575352.
 Dadhich JP, et al. “Report on carbon footprint due to milk formula: a study from selected countries of the Asia-Pacific region.” Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI)/International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) Asia (2015). https://www.bpni.org/report/Carbon-Footprints-Due-to-Milk-Formula.pdf
 Karlsson, Johan O et al. “The carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes in comparison with breastfeeding.” Journal of cleaner production vol. 222 (2019): 436-445. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.03.043
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