Choosing the Right Formula for Your Baby
Scanning the formula display at your local pharmacy or grocery store can be downright overwhelming, the shelves crowded with a wide variety of types and brands. How do you know if a cow’s milk-based formula, a soy-based formula, or a specialty formula is right for your baby? Should you buy a ready-made, liquid-concentrated, or powdered formula? And what’s in formula, anyway?
All formulas are regulated by the Food and Drug Association, and medical associations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians encourage mothers to breastfeed their infants but also cite the use of iron-fortified formula as an “acceptable alternative.” Neither institution has issued any blanket endorsements of one sort of formula over another. In other words, you and your baby – in conjunction with your child’s pediatrician, whom you should consult – will be making this decision without a huge amount of outside guidance.
Here are some things to consider when choosing the right formula for your baby:
Forms of formula: Infant formulas are available in three different forms, which vary slightly in terms of preparation required and cost.
- Powdered formula: The least costly option, powdered formula needs to be mixed with water before you offer it to your baby.
- Concentrated liquid formula: Also less costly than premixed formula, this liquid formula must also be combined with water.
- Ready-to-use formula: Premixed and ready for you to put right in your baby’s bottle, ready-to-use formula may be the most convenient formula option, but it is also the most expensive.
Types of formula: There are three major types of formula, all of which do their best to approximate the nutritional qualities of human breast milk, combining proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and water in roughly the same proportions as human milk. The types of formula differ in terms of the sources from which they draw these nutrients.
- Cow’s milk formula: The majority of infant formulas fall into this category. Made from cow’s milk that has been altered to more closely mirror breast milk, with the proper combination of nutrients (often iron-fortified and including vegetable oils, vitamins, and minerals), it is fairly easy for most babies to digest and therefore a very popular choice. For babies who have difficulty digesting or are allergic to the proteins found in cow’s milk, however, another option may be better.
- Soy-based formula: About 25 percent of babies who are fed formula are given soy-based formulas – far fewer than are given cow’s milk formula. These formulas are popular with parents whose infants are allergic to cow’s milk-based formula. Some parents also choose to give their babies soy-based formulas (which may also include vegetable oils, corn syrup and/or sucrose, and iron) because they want them to have a diet free of animal proteins. In some cases, however, babies who are allergic to cow’s milk formulas are allergic to soy-based formulas as well.
- Hypoallergenic (or protein hydrolysate) formula: An alternative for babies who are allergic to milk-based or soy-based formulas, hypoallergenic formulas tend to be easier to digest and spark allergic reactions less frequently than either milk- or soy-based options.
- Other specialty formulas: You can find formulas made specifically for low-birth-weight babies; formulas that are low-sodium for babies on restricted-salt diets; formulas that include “predigested” protein for babies who have trouble digesting or are allergic to cow’s milk formulas; and formulas enriched with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which are omega-3 fatty acids found in breast milk, as well as in fish and eggs. Speak with your child’s pediatrician to figure out which formula may be best for your child.
- Main formula ingredients: Most formulas include some combination of the following ingredients: carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. If you want to find out more about the specific ingredients in your infant formula and why all that stuff is in there, check out Babble’s interactive guide to baby formula ingredients. (It’s very cool.)