Conventional wisdom has it that newborns should receive as little baby formula as possible, as breast milk is more beneficial to their health. But a new study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that giving small amounts of formula to babies, who've lost a lot of weight in the first few days of their lives, can actually increase the length of time a mother spends breastfeeding and provide advantages to newborns, a UCSF press release says.

"Formula use has the potential to be a slippery slope to breastfeeding discontinuation, but [early limited formula] is a different way to envision using it," lead author Valerie Flaherman said in the statement. "Rather than giving full bottles of formula that make it hard for the baby to return to the breast, ELF is a small amount of supplementation with a clear end point that alleviates some of the stress new mothers feel about producing enough milk."

The study, published online in the journal Pediatrics, is the first randomized trial of its kind, UCSF says. The researchers enrolled 40 full-term newborns, no more than two days old, who had lost more than five percent of their birth weight, and randomly assigned them to receive either small amounts of formula following breastfeeding or to continue with breastfeeding alone.

They found that among the babies assigned to the limited formula group, only 10 percent had to use formula at one week of age, compared with 47 percent of the infants in the control group. At three months, 79 percent of the babies in the limited formula group were breastfeeding exclusively, compared to 42 percent in the control group.

"Early limited formula may reduce longer-term formula use at 1 week and increase breastfeeding at 3 months for some infants," the researchers wrote in their study. "ELF may be a successful temporary coping strategy for mothers to support breastfeeding newborns with early weight loss."

They added, however, that the results need to be confirmed in larger studies and in different populations before the findings can be applied to infant care as a whole.

"The results of this study are provocative and challenge conventional wisdom," James Taylor, from the University of Washington Medical Center's Newborn Nursery, told UCSF. "It is crucial that we have more randomized controlled trials on interventions to increase breastfeeding rather than relying on heavily confounded observational studies or biased expert opinion."

Flaherman VJ, Aby J, Burgos AE, Lee KA, Cabana MD, Newman TB. Effect of Early Limited Formula on Duration and Exclusivity of Breastfeeding in At-Risk Infants: An RTC. Pediatrics. 2013; Doi: 10.1542. Accessed on May 13, 2013.