Can You Accidentally Starve Your Breastfed Newborn Baby?

Can You Accidentally Starve Your Breastfed Newborn Baby?

The Fed Is Best Foundation was started by mother and physician, Dr Christie del Castillo-Heygi, whose newborn baby had been severely dehydrated after four days of ineffective feeding.

At age three, Christie’s child was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, low IQ, delayed fine and gross motor skills, and a seizure disorder.

Christie’s story is certainly a tragic one, and it prompted her to petition public health leaders to warn parents about the risks of insufficient breastmilk intake.

The question is, need parents worry?

Is Christie’s story something that parents really need to take significant heed of, or is it rather a tragic, but isolated occurrence?

Christie’s warning contradicts efforts made by leading health organisations around the world, who have emphasised the importance of exclusive breastfeeding.

Before getting into the detail of this, let’s explore the idea that ‘fed is best’.

“Fed Is Best”

Sounds pretty straight-forward, right?

Well, if compared with not being fed, yes, fed is most certainly best.

But being fed is the bare minimum standard.

Being fed is actually more complex than the words ‘being fed’ imply.

For example, in infancy, being formula fed, compared with being breastfed, carries risks. This is not a judgment by any means – the whole team at BellyBelly fully supports all women, no matter how they feed their babies. It’s simply being honest about the facts.

As Maureen Minchen says, “Breastfeeding is a highly evolved bridge from the womb to the world. The opposite of ‘fed’ is ‘not fed’, i.e., starved, and presumably dead. Alive is better than dead, we all agree. But if we are talking about the food that is to be fed, breastmilk IS best and also normal and, in fact, necessary for normal physiological development, so that anything else is not best, but worse, a second-rate substitute for a complex living tissue.”

She continues, “Yes, some infants survive and grow on second-rate products…. But the baby not fed breastmilk will not be the child it would have been if it had received the unique milk its mother was capable of making for it. The obesity epidemic is proof of that, and it is relevant that the formula makers have steadily reduced protein levels to try to reduce their massive contribution to that epidemic.

Some infants grew up on the old bread and cow’s milk sops that were once usual. Some were even brought up on the raw fish and cream diet the advantaged parents of Iceland once thought best for babies. But the baby not fed breastmilk will not be the child it would have been if it had received the unique milk its mother was capable of making for it.”

So, is supplementation ever required, or can all babies be exclusively breastfed?

Most Babies Can Exclusively Breastfeed

Leading health organisations recommend babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months and then for breastfeeding to continue alongside suitable complementary foods for 2 years and beyond.

These recommendations are based on solid evidence that doing following these guidelines optimises health outcomes for both mothers and their children.

Most babies can be exclusively breastfed. Nevertheless, there are certain circumstances where supplementation might be medically necessary. You can read more about these reasons here.

Unnecessary supplementation, however, can interrupt the ‘supply and demand’ basis of breastfeeding, reduce a mother’s breastfeeding self-efficacy, and expose a baby’s gut to non-human components that might affect lifelong health.

Health systems are commonly in place to ensure a baby’s weight is checked regularly in the early weeks of life. In this way, babies who might be at risk of insufficient intake can be identified and receive the appropriate care to ensure their intake remains at a healthy level.

Unfortunately, in rare circumstances, these systems might fail, leading to health concerns. So, how often do these events occur?

Rates Of Insufficient Milk Intake Leading To Severe Dehydration

Research studies have looked at how often exclusively breastfed babies suffer from insufficient milk intake.

One study found that 0.007% of babies suffered severe hypernatremia – elevated blood sodium levels, which can be associated with dehydration. In this study, none of the babies with this condition suffered any long-term complications. Other studies have found that between 0.032.77% of babies suffer moderate hypernatremia.

So, do these studies, and Christie’s story, suggest we need to supplement all babies? No, they don’t and here’s why.

Routine Supplementation Equals More Health Problems

Overall, it has been estimated, by combining reports from all the published literature on this topic, that 0.1% (or 1 in 1000) babies develop hypernatremia. Therefore, if all newborns were routinely supplemented, this would mean that for every 1000 healthy babies, one case of hypernatremia could be prevented.

Hypernatremia is a serious condition. However, supplementing all newborns with formula is not risk free. For example, how many more infections (e.g. ear, gastrointestinal, and respiratory) might occur due to routine formula supplementation, to prevent one case of hypernatremia?

So what can be done?

Adequate Health Care Systems

Adequate health care systems need to be in place, to help identify any babies at risk, and to ensure adequate follow up is performed for all babies. In this way, babies’ intake can remain at a healthy level. If you are concerned about your baby, be sure to seek prompt medical advice.

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Renee Kam is a mother of two daughters, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), a physiotherapist, author of 'The Newborn Baby Manual' and an Australian Breastfeeding Association Counsellor. In her spare time, Renee enjoys spending time with family and friends, horse riding, running and reading.


  1. You may be factual about supplementation but you sure are callous and unempathetic about it. Women who turn to supplementation are going through more than just “Supply Issues”. They the ones that need your help the most, and an article like this is only going to guilt and shame them and contribute to their performance anxiety.
    There’s a psychological component to breast feeding that you are missing entirely. Women considering supplementation need support, not smug shaming.

  2. Her belief that the 4 days of inadequate breast milk intake led to her child’s diagnosis is no more valid that the beliefs many have that their child’s immunizations led to autism and other disabilities. It’s not based on science, only correlation.

    1. Jennifer – interesting point regarding immunisation. If vaccination cannot cause brain damage and death why do the manufacturers list these as possible side effects?

    2. Actually there is a strong connection between hypernatremia and a later diagnosis of Autism, especially is he had suffered seizures and especially if he had had a stroke. This was a brain injury. Sometimes with brain injuries the brain is made more susceptible to Autism. Unfortunately this also happens after cancer, strokes, or sometimes events when oxygen just isn’t getting to the brain.

  3. Lots of facts! Thid article avoids being emotive and purely presents facts! I appreciate this. I appreciate that there are MANY factors women feel able/empowered to exclusively breastfeed and I acknowledge that there are MANY reasons women may feel/be unable to breastfeed. Anything related to parenting stirs the heart. Thanks for providing FACTS so we can be informed, not scared, and then make the best choices possible for us in our own lives.

  4. Nowhere in that article is there “smug shaming.” Ms. Kam has reported facts only. There’s no more shaming in this article than in similarly written articles about diet and exercise. If you read facts (not value judgments) and feel shame, that’s an issue you need to work on in counseling – not a reason to suppress the truth.

  5. Great article – it’s nice to see the bottle/ breast topic raised without a The ‘politically sensitive’ sugar coat that seems to saturate everything else on the topic!

  6. Sandy, it sounds like you had a tough time breastfeeding and have received some nasty comments about having to use formula? I am so sorry if that is this case, it must be an awful feeling to have to defend your need to supplement. But I didn’t see any ‘shaming’ in this particular article. I don’t feel that giving women accurate advice about medical interventions and suggesting that they should seek medical advice if concerned about their baby is ‘shaming’. Are we supposed to pretend that there is absolutely no risk involved in formula feeding, and that will somehow make mums who have to formula feed happy about it? As with any medical intervention, there are risks involved. Obviously if your baby is dehydrated and not feeding well, that risk is bigger than the risk of gastro later. But it makes no sense to tell all parents to supplement (as the Fed is Best foundation promotes) because most of those babies aren’t at risk of dehydration, and unnecessary formula puts them at risk of infection. When in doubt seek medical advice, and if you need a medical intervention go ahead and use it without shame. Framing this as a matter of mothers ‘choice’ about which they feel ‘guilt’ completely misses the point and I wish news articles would stop presenting it that way. It’s about having adequate medical support systems to be able to tell the difference between the babies who need supplementation and the babies who don’t. Minimising risks to all babies is best!

  7. Solely breastfeeding was my goal. I tried for 2 weeks and followed all the tips and tricks. My supply was great, the latch was perfect and painless, but my baby was constantly writhing and screaming, losing weight, and had terrible diarrhea. I went to the doctor and found out she has a lactose sensitivity and my milk was passing through her intestines without nourishing her. She was wasting away from malnutrition. She’s now on soy formula and thriving, happy, and I’m not watching her writhe in pain anymore. I’m feeding her a small amount of breastmilk every other feeding so she can get the antibodies she needs, but the first thing I felt was dread and then failure upon finding out she needed to be on formula. Sensitivity in articles such as these and not fear-mongering of “if you don’t exclusively breastfeed, your baby will grow up to be insufficient.” Is so important. Giving the facts without having compassion is counterproductive and perpetuates the depression that women go through when they’ve tried their hardest and circumstances dictate differently. We are aware breast is best, but my child suffered pain and malnutrition for the first 2 weeks of her life because of the extreme pressure I felt, intrinsically and extrinsically, to exclusively breastfeed. Watch that pendulum swing… Some of us are getting knocked over in the process.

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