Whether you’re using baby formula as the main source of nutrition for your newborn or as a complement to breastfeeding, you’ll want to make sure your baby gets all the nutrients required for strong growth and development. With so many brands and types of formula on the market it can seem like a daunting task to pick the right one. Thankfully, once you know what to look for it’s actually pretty simple to narrow down your options and make the right decision. Our goal with this post is to show you how to do just that.
What Are the Main Types of Baby Formula?
Cow’s Milk-Based Formula
If you’ve purchased baby formula without paying too much attention before, chances are that it was made with cow’s milk. That’s because about 80% of all baby formula is cow’s milk-based according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The milk in formula is heavily processed to make it safer for consumption by infants and easier to digest. Despite these efforts, some babies are allergic to the protein in milk and/or lactose intolerant and may not respond well to milk-based formula. In these situations, there are other great alternatives available.
Baby formula made from soy milk contains a protein (soy) and a carbohydrate like glucose or sucrose that are different from those in milk-based formula. As such, soy-based formula can be a good first alternative when your baby is unable to digest lactose or is otherwise allergic to milk. The reason we say “first alternative” is because about 50% of babies with a milk allergy will also be sensitive to soy, in which case you might need to resort to hydrolyzed baby formula. Of course, if your family is vegetarian soy-based formula might be the natural choice.
Hydrolyzed formula is often called “predigested” formula. That’s because the milk protein in hydrolyzed formula has already been broken down into smaller proteins that infants will be able to digest more easily. This type of formula is best suited for babies who don’t tolerate milk or soy-based formulas, but is generally a lot more expensive.
There are two types of hydrolyzed formula available: partially hydrolyzed, which may help babies who simply do not respond well to milk-based formula, and fully hydrolyzed, which may be necessary if your baby suffers from a severe allergy to milk. Fully hydrolyzed formula is also usually lactose free and is often called “hypoallergenic formula”. It is crucial to provide babies with a type of formula they are able to digest well so that they can fully absorb nutrients and develop normally.
Buying Baby Formula with the Right Nutrients
In the United States, the FDA sets regulatory requirements for infant formula. These requirements specify the minimum amount of 29 separate nutrients present in formula, as well as the maximum amounts for 9 of those nutrients. Only baby formulas meeting these requirements are allowed to be sold in the United States. This means that regardless of the brand that you buy, your baby will be getting all of the key nutrients necessary for growth and development. There are nonetheless a couple key differences to look out for:
Quality of ingredients: The quality of ingredients can vary from brand to brand and often depending on the price point. Some formulas contain ingredients that are less desirable, such as corn syrup, for example, instead of healthier alternatives. Some formulas can be more difficult for your baby to digest due to the quality of ingredients used. We recommend to look for formula made of non-GMO ingredients.
DHA and ARA: Some baby formulas include DHA and ARA, two fatty acids present in breast milk and believed to improve the development of a baby’s brain and vision. However, researchers haven’t been able to consistently demonstrate benefits to DHA and ARA supplementation. Due to the limited evidence, the American Academy of Pediatrics has not taken an official position on DHA and ARA.
Probiotics: Some formulas are fortified with probiotics, which are good bacteria present in large numbers in the digestive system of breastfed babies. Probiotics promote a balance of bacteria in your baby’s intestines and can help offset the growth of organisms that can cause infections and inflammation. This benefits the immune system and could for example help reduce diarrhea or eczema in certain babies. Other benefits are being studied such as potentially beneficial impacts on allergies, asthma, and colic. As with DHA and ARA, while the list of potential benefits is long, the scientific evidence remains limited.
Prebiotics: Prebiotics are also thought to take formula one step closer to breast milk, which is rich in prebiotic oligosaccharides. While probiotics are the actual live strains of bacteria that your baby ingests, prebiotic oligosaccharides are the “food” that the good bacteria need to thrive. According to this study, the addition of prebiotics in infant formula makes the gastrointestinal microbiota (the living organisms in a baby’s digestive system) of formula fed babies resemble that of breastfed babies. A healthy microbiome is important to promote a strong immune system.
To summarize, any formula sold in the U.S. is regulated by the FDA to contain the nutrients necessary for normal growth and development. However, there are other unregulated supplements such as DHA, ARA, probiotics and prebiotics which may further support your baby’s well-being. While more research needs to be done on those supplements, they could provide many potential benefits and don’t appear to be a source of risk. Based on that, we believe it is a good idea to look for formula that includes them.
A Note on Iron
Iron-deficiency anemia used to be a common problem for infants until manufacturers started fortifying baby formula with iron. For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommends that iron-fortified formula be used for all babies who are not breastfed, or who are only partially breastfed, from birth to one year of age. As always, this is a general recommendation and you should follow the advice of your physician.
Should You Buy Organic Formula?
What Format of Baby Formula Should You Buy?
Infant formula comes in three forms. All of them are equal in terms of nutrition but vary significantly in terms of price. What you get for a higher price is more convenience and time savings. The right decision for your family with ultimately come down to how you value money versus time and convenience.
Powdered formula is the least expensive and will need to be mixed with water before use. You will need to ensure that you follow the right proportions and powder and water and mix the formula well as it can sometimes clump.
Concentrated liquid formula will also need to be mixed with water; however, the mixing is somewhat easier and the whole process is less messy.
Ready-to-use formula is both the most convenient and most expensive type format. As its name implies, it doesn’t need to be mixed with water and can be fed to your baby as is. This can be particularly convenient if you are often on the go or in a hurry.
Our Baby Formula Recommendations
Best Baby Formula Overall
The Similac Pro-Advance checks pretty much all the boxes if your baby doesn’t have allergies or other specific needs:
- It contains quality ingredients relative to other well-known brands
- It’s fortified with DHA and Lutein to help support brain and eye development; and
- It contains prebiotic oligosaccharides similar to those found in breastmilk to strengthen your baby’s immune system.
Best Baby Formula for Sensitive Stomach
Similar to our overall favorite baby formula, the Gerber Good Start SoothePro contains ingredients to support your baby’s healthy development:
- It is fortified with DHA to support brain and eye development;
- It contains probiotics to provide extra comfort for babies experiencing excessive crying, fussiness, colic, and gas;
- It contains prebiotic oligosaccharides similar to those found in breastmilk to strengthen your baby’s immune system; and
- It is non-GMO and does not contain artificial growth hormones.
Best Soy-Based Baby Formula
If your baby is lactose intolerant, then a soy-based baby formula can be the way to go. The Gerber Good Start Soy is our favorite one and many parents agree with us. Here are some of its benefits:
- It is made with DHA to support a healthy brain and eye development;
- It contains hydrolyzed soy protein for easy digestion;
- It is fortified with iron to prevent iron-deficiency anemia; and
- It is made without genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Best Hypoallergenic Baby Formula
The Similac Alimentum hypoallergenic infant formula is made of extensively hydrolyzed protein and is lactose-free. It’s one of a few options that parents turn to when their baby isn’t responding well to milk or soy-based formula due to allergies. We think it’s the best option – and most reviewers certainly agree – but others like Enfamil Nutramigen and Gerber Extensive HA are also excellent. We wanted to provide alternatives here because parents of babies with allergies often need to try more than one option before finding a formula that works. The Similac Alimentum contains the following ingredients to support your baby’s healthy development:
- It is fortified with DHA to support brain and eye development;
- It’s supplemented iron to help prevent anemia; and
- Like other Similac baby formulas, it’s non-GMO and does not contain artificial growth hormones.
Best Amino Acid-Based Baby Formula
Let’s start by being clear: you only need to be reading this if your baby has severe food allergies or gastrointestinal issues and can’t tolerate any other type of formula. If that’s the case, amino acid-based formula is here to give you another chance at having a happily-fed baby. Unfortunately this type of formula is significantly more expensive that the other types and you will likely want to start supplementing it with solid food as early as possible (around the 6-month mark).
There are two main offerings here and both offer essentially the exact same thing at almost the exact same price so we thought we would include both in case you have better access to one or the other. Or in case one of them happens to be on sale! Once you do try one and your baby is feeding well, however, you should stick to that one going forward.
- Hypoallergenic, amino acid-based baby formula;
- Fortified with iron to help prevent anemia and facilitate the production of red blood cells; and
- Made with DHA and ARA to support brain and eye development.
Best Organic Baby Formula
We love Earth’s Best Organic baby formula because not only is it organic, but it also contains all the supplements you would expect from top-notch baby formula:
- It’s fortified with DHA, ARA, and Lutein to support healthy brain and eye development;
- It contains prebiotic oligosaccharides similar to those found in breastmilk to strengthen your baby’s immune system;
- It is made from the organic milk of grain and grass-fed cows; and
- It is non-GMO and Kosher.
How to Tell if Your Baby Is Allergic to Formula?
Common symptoms include the following:
- Incessant crying and extreme irritability
- Excessive gas following feedings
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Runny nose
- Trouble sleeping
If your baby has any of these symptoms you should speak with your doctor to make sure you identify the cause and find the best solution for your baby. Unfortunately, if it turns out to be a full-blown milk allergy you might have no other option that go with hypoallergenic formula.