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Babies who are breastfed for the first year of life seem to grow more rapidly in the first three or four months and then more slowly for the rest of their first year. On average, breastfed babies weigh less at age 1 than formula-fed babies. However, by the time they're 2, the gap closes and breastfed and formula-fed babies weigh about the same.
Experts aren't sure why this is, but they do know that it's completely normal and nothing to be concerned about.
Growth charts from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) track children's length and weight gain. These charts are based on children who are fed formula only or a combination of formula and breast milk.
Initially, these charts caused some concern about the growth patterns of breastfed babies because those who dropped in percentiles were sometimes thought to be growing too slowly. Whether a baby is breastfed or formula-fed, in the 10th percentile for weight or the 90th, growing steadily on a curve over time is the best measure of health.
Today, children younger than 2 are measured using charts from the World Health Organization (WHO), which are based on healthy growth patterns for breastfed children and endorsed by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The WHO charts confirm that the patterns of growth among breastfed babies are normal and healthy. But when using the charts on formula-fed babies, the babies gain weight slowly at first and then too quickly.
One reason breastfed babies weigh less at one year may be that they stop feeding when they're satisfied, unlike formula-fed babies who may be coaxed to finish a bottle and end up getting more food than they need. Formula also has a different protein composition than breast milk, which can cause changes in the body's metabolism.
It's not clear whether the slower growth of breastfed babies after 3 or 4 months of age is a result of breastfeeding, or whether cause and effect go in the other direction. In other words, it could be that babies who are born to grow more slowly are satisfied with breastfeeding alone, while those who are going to grow more rapidly (for genetic or other reasons) are hungrier, cry more, and are therefore more likely to be given formula and eventually weaned.