Published March 6, 2024

How to Choose a Baby Formula

Choosing the right formula for your baby can seem like a daunting task—there are SO many options! Whether you're transitioning from breast milk, supplementing, or formula feeding from the start, it's important to choose a product that meets your baby’s specific needs. Luckily, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the FDA provide guidelines to help parents navigate this critical decision. We’ll show you how to choose infant formula, focusing on key ingredients such as carb source, protein size (such as partially-hydrolyzed protein), and fatty acids, which are essential for your baby's development.

Understanding Baby Formula Composition

Baby formulas are designed to closely mirror breast milk, providing essential nutrients that babies need to grow and develop. The FDA regulates infant formulas to ensure they meet specific nutritional requirements. Common ingredients include cow's milk protein, goat milk protein, soy protein, lactose, corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, vegetable oils, vitamins, and minerals. However, the choice between cow's milk, soy-based, and specialized formulas should be informed by your baby's needs, dietary restrictions, and potential allergies.

Cow’s Milk-Based Formulas: Most popular and widely selected, cow’s milk-based formulas are modified to resemble breast milk more closely, with adjustments made to the protein, carbohydrate, and fat content. They include added fatty acids from plant-based oils, plus vitamins and minerals to support development and overall health.

Soy-Based Formulas: Made from soy protein and supplemented with vitamins and minerals, soy-based formulas are a viable option for families seeking a vegetarian option for their little ones. While soy formulas provide an alternative for infants with cow’s milk protein allergy or those who cannot digest traditional cow lactose, the AAP only recommends the use of soy-based formulas if a hypoallergenic or elemental formula has been trialed first and failed. And as always, ask your doctor if you’re unsure!

Specialized Formulas: For babies with specific needs, there are formulas available with extensively hydrolyzed (broken down) protein to help support digestion or reduce the risk of allergies. These are called hypoallergenic formulas. Elemental formulas, also called amino acid-based formulas, eschew proteins altogether by offering single amino acids in their formulation to support infants with severe allergies. Formulas designed for premature infants or those with particular medical conditions also exist, offering tailored nutrition. It all depends on your baby's needs.

Key Ingredients to Look For

Lactose: While many adults cannot digest lactose (a condition known as “lactose intolerance”), most infants are born with the ability to digest this important carbohydrate! Whether the lactating parent consumes dairy or not, lactose is the primary carb source in breast milk! For those who want a formula that resembles breast milk, an infant formula that contains lactose can be an ideal option.

Added whey protein: The protein composition of cow’s milk or goat’s milk isn’t very similar to what is seen in mature breast milk, particularly with the ratio of whey-to-casein protein. While mature human milk contains roughly 60% whey and 40% casein, goat milk and cow milk contain only 20% whey with 80% casein. For parents who want a formula that resembles the composition of breast milk, you’ll want to choose one that includes added whey on the ingredient list, typically in the form of “whey protein concentrate” or “demineralized whey”. Check the can or ask your doctor if you have any questions! 

Fatty Acids: Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are crucial for brain and eye development. It’s always a good idea to look for formulas fortified with these fatty acids to support your baby's growth.

Vitamins and Minerals: Essential for development, vitamins, and minerals should be present in any formula you choose. Ensure the formula includes adequate levels of vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as iron and calcium, to support healthy growth.

Extras: While not required by the FDA, some infant formulas include bonus ingredients like human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), lactoferrin, MFGM, DHA, and ARA. While these ingredients are known to exist in breast milk, research is mixed about their benefits when used in infant formulas. It’s a good idea to do your research to decide what is important for your baby’s specific needs.

Considerations for Choosing the Right Formula

Dietary Restrictions and Allergies: If your baby has dietary restrictions (e.g., lactose intolerance) or allergies (e.g., cow’s milk protein allergy), selecting a hypoallergenic, elemental, or plant-based formula might be necessary. Consultation with a pediatrician is crucial to identify any potential issues and choose a formula that will support and won't harm your baby.

Age Appropriateness: Infants' nutritional needs change as they grow. Most formulas are designed for babies from birth to 12 months, with specific formulations tailored for premature babies and toddlers/older infants. Ensure the formula is appropriate for your baby’s age and developmental stage.

The AAP and FDA Guidelines: Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration provide resources and guidelines for choosing infant formulas. These guidelines are based on the latest research and can help parents make informed decisions.

Consulting Healthcare Professionals: Don’t be afraid to ask! Pediatricians and healthcare professionals can offer personalized advice based on your baby’s health history and nutritional needs. Their expertise can guide you through choosing the best formula for your baby. 

Choosing the right formula for your baby involves considering various factors, including nutritional content, dietary needs, and potential allergies. By focusing on key ingredients like lactose, extra whey protein, and essential fatty acids, parents can select a formula that supports their infant's growth and development. Remember, consulting with healthcare professionals and referring to guidelines from reputable organizations like the AAP and FDA can provide valuable guidance in making this important decision. At the end of the day, every baby is unique, and you know what’s best for your little one!

The content on this site is for informational purposes only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Discuss any health or feeding concerns with your infant’s pediatrician. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay it based on the content on this page.