This has been a topic of controversy for a long time – and I can completely understand why.  On one side of the fence, we have the staunch supporters of breastfeeding that cannot fathom how anyone could possibly feed their baby anything other than what mother nature intended for them to have.  On the other, countless people that beg to differ believing that as long as the baby is receiving key nutrients that it needs to grow and thrive – all is well.

What is it about this issue that gets so many riled up and upset?  To each his (or her) own, right?  Well a group of researchers have found something that may change the stakes in this age-old argument and could raise some serious questions about whether breast really is best for baby.

Jin-Ran Chen and his co-researchers have been conducting an ongoing study that is analyzing whether the effects of soy-based formula are actually better for a baby’s bones than mother’s milk or formula based on cow’s milk. Chen, who works with the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center of the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service, says “We’re especially interested in determining the impact that early nutrition can have in preventing or delaying onset of age-related degenerative bone diseases, particularly osteoporosis.”

So it may end up that we’ve been arguing all this time about which choice is best for nothing.  If researchers can show that a baby will develop stronger bones, have a lesser chance for future degenerative bone diseases and better bone health – then I suppose the debate is over.

But what do proponents of breastfeeding have to say about nature’s intention for children?  What makes breastfeeding best in their eyes?  According to the La Leche League International there is significant value to infants, mothers, families and the environment from breastfeeding.  Breast milk is said to be customized to exactly the baby’s needs.  Tastes are passed on from the mother’s diet, offering a variety as opposed to the standard formula taste, breastfeeding advocates say.  Baby gets exactly as much as he needs and it even provides antibodies that protect the baby from countless ailments.  Formula, on the other hand, provides nutrients that are ideal for babies with particular dietary needs, though it may not be as easily as digestible as breast milk according to the Mayo Clinic in this comparison of the two.

But at the end of the day, which is better if any?

Back to seeing soy feedings in a new light.  What are some other benefits of soy formula to babies?  It turns out that Chen and his colleagues found several other factors in a previous study (also published in the Journal of Nutrition) that might end up having a significant impact on infants’ bone health.  Animals in the study that were fed soy-based formula not only showed greater bone mineral density and bone mineral content but they also formed bone at a faster rate.  Positive cell activity also was present in these cases, leading to overall better bone structure.

One has to consider whether choosing one source of a baby’s nutrition over the other can enhance bone formation, building and reforming of bone.  If so, then maybe it is time that we all consider more soy-based infant nutrition, regardless of ingrained perceptions of what is best for baby.  Center Director and co-researcher on the study Thomas M. Badger talks about the importance of identifying the potential benefits or adverse effects of these early nutrition choices.  He says, “We need a better understanding of their impact on growth, development, nutritional status, promotion of health, and prevention of disease. We believe the findings from our studies are improving our understanding of early nutrition and will help pediatricians, parents, other researchers, and policymakers make informed choices.”

Even though breastfeeding has consistently been supported and fully recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, many parents opt for formula either by choice or by necessity. So then the question becomes “why choose cow’s milk when soy-based formula has all these great benefits?”  The study is ongoing with years of follow up still in the pipeline but early indications definitely point to shift in focus from one type of feeding to the next.

Of course at this point we only know how these things impact piglets’ bones (pigs have digestive systems closest to humans) so only time will tell but it is food for thought the next time you decide to reach for cow’s milk formula or opt for breastfeeding.  Maybe, just maybe this could change the stakes in the “breast is best” debate.