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How Do I Choose the Right Infant Formula?

By J.S. Metzker Erdemir
Updated May 17, 2024
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Parents confronted with the tremendous array of infant formula in the supermarket might feel intimidated by all the options. How do you know which is the right choice for your baby? There are three types of formula: milk-based, soy-based, and protein hydrolysate. Your doctor can advise you on which formula is best for your baby, especially for babies with special dietary needs. Choosing powdered or pre-made infant formula is a matter of cost and personal preference.

The ingredients in infant formula are meant to replicate breast milk. Although there is no formula that is exactly like human milk, baby formulas generally provide adequate nutrition to babies who aren't breastfed. Vitamins and minerals are added to all infant formulas, and they are fortified with iron. Infant formula is preferable to feeding a baby with plain animal or soy milk because these milks can be difficult to digest and do not contain adequate nutrition.

Milk-based formulas are derived from cow's milk, and are suitable for most babies because the protein, fat, and carbohydrates are adjusted to resemble human breast milk. Some people choose formulas made with soy milk. These are nutritionally similar to cow's milk formula, but do not contain animal proteins. Some parents find lactose-intolerant or colicky babies are more comfortable with soy milk formula, while other babies can have the same reactions to the proteins in both cow and soy milk.

Protein hydrolysate formulas, also called elemental or hypoallergenic formulas, are suitable for babies who have bad reactions to cow and soy milk, such as rashes, diarrhea, and stomach upset. Elemental formulas are often recommended for premature babies or infants with a family history of food allergies. This type of infant formula contains proteins that have been broken down to resemble pre-digested proteins, and are less likely to cause allergic reactions.

Infant formula is generally sold as “first-stage” and “second-stage” or “follow-on milk.” First-stage formula is meant for babies under one year old. It contains a 60:40 ratio of whey to curds, and is easier to digest. Second-stage milk can be given to babies over one year old. It has an 80:20 ratio of curds to whey, making it slower to digest. Many parents opt to use follow-on milk as supplemental nutrition for children up to three years old.

In general, elemental formulas are much more expensive than cow's milk and soy-based formula. Powdered formula is usually cheaper than pre-made formula, but pre-made formula can be more convenient, especially for travel.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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