There are so many options for infant formula on the market, it can be overwhelming trying to decide which is the best choice for your baby. To help, let’s take a look at the types of formula available, the nutrients you should be looking for, and how to use formula safely.
All commercially made formulas are created to resemble breast milk. They provide fluid, proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals that babies need for healthy growth. Most formulas today are made using cow’s milk proteins. (Note: never feed your infant whole cow’s milk, since babies under 12 months old cannot digest it and it could lead to health concerns.) If your child has a milk allergy, intolerance, or other special nutritional needs your pediatrician may recommend a special formula, like a soy or hydrolyzed formula.
You can buy formula in three different forms: powdered, concentrated liquid or ready-to-use. The powdered kinds are the least expensive of the bunch. Both powdered and concentrated liquids need to be mixed with the correct amount of water from a safe source. While ready-to-use formula is the most expensive, it is also the most convenient and presents the lowest risk for cross-contamination.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Food and Drug Administration recommend choosing a formula fortified with iron (up to 12 mg/L) to prevent iron deficiency anemia and promote healthy growth and development. You may also look for a formula that contains docosahexaenoic acid (also called DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which are fatty acids important for neurodevelopment. All formulas in the U.S. are also fortified with vitamin D.
If you are a label reader you may have noticed that many formulas include a form of sugar. These sugars provide a simple and easy carbohydrate for the baby to digest, and energy for growth. If you choose a cow’s milk formula, lactose is probably the type of sugar present, while other types and even organic formulas may use cane sugar, sucrose, or even corn syrup.
You may see formulas fortified with probiotics (which are healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (which are carbohydrates that feed the healthy bacteria). While these are present in breast milk, there is limited research to show health benefits when provided in formula to infants, so you should talk with your pediatrician if you plan to use formula with probiotics or prebiotics.
When it comes to safety, always wash your hands before mixing formula or feeding. If you are preparing powdered or liquid concentrate formula, use cold water that has been boiled for one minute and then cooled, or use bottled water. You may want to test your tap water to make sure it is lead-free, especially if you live in an older home. If you’d like to warm the formula before feeding, submerge the bottle in a bowl of warm water until it is luke-warm - never heat formula in bottles in the microwave or on top of the stove, as the liquid may not evenly heat and it could risk burning your baby! Finally, discard any leftover formula after feeding. If it has not been used, but is mixed or opened, refrigerate and use within 48 hours. As food safety experts like to say, “when in doubt, throw it out!”
Many of the formulas on the market today are safe alternatives to breast milk. As long as the formula you choose fits in your budget, lifestyle, and is accepted by your baby, you can rest assured they are getting the nutrients they need. For more information, talk with your pediatrician or dietitian about what they recommend for your baby.