No matter if you’re planning to exclusively formula-feed your baby, do a combination of breastmilk and formula, or if you simply want to keep infant formula around “just in case,” there’s a good chance you’ll get overwhelmed by the heaps of options out there. But know this: While the perfect infant formula doesn’t exist, there is a baby formula out there that will meet your little one’s unique needs. Here’s everything you need to know to make the best baby formula choice for your sweet pea. 

What is infant formula?

It’s true that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends solely breastfeeding your baby for the first 6 months of life. But it’s also true that exclusive breastfeeding—or even combo feeding—isn’t always ideal for everyone. Enter: Baby formula. Infant formula is the best partial or total substitute for breastmilk for babies under 12 months old. Between birth and 1 years old, babies grow three times their size, which puts their nutrition needs at an all-time high. And that’s why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the contents of all infant formulas sold in America. This ensures that each and every baby formula—no matter the price, brand, or form—meets specific federal nutrition guidelines.
Did you know? Infant formula was invented by a chemist in 1865. It consisted of cow’s milk, wheat and malt flour, and potassium bicarbonate.

What’s in baby formula? 

Despite differences in labels, colors, and price, all infant formulas have to include a specific amount of calories, carbohydrates, protein, fats, and vitamins and minerals. Here’s what’s for-sure included in all infant formulas on the market:

  • Calories: Little ones need a lot of calories to support healthy brain growth. Typically, baby formulas contain 19 to 20 calories per ounce.

  • Carbohydrates: No low-carb diet here! Carbohydrates are your baby’s most significant energy source—and they may come from corn syrup solids, maltodextrin, sucrose, or lactose, which is the sugar naturally found in breastmilk.

  • Protein: Those sweet wisps of baby hairs and tiny fingernails need protein in order to grow. It’s the basic building block for cells, hair, skin, and organs. The primary protein sources in baby formula come from nonfat milk, milk protein isolate, whey, casein, soy, and amino acids. 

  • Fats: Healthy growth and development depend on fats. These are labeled as vegetable oil, palm olein oil, coconut oil, canola oil, or corn oil on your baby formula.

  • Vitamins and minerals: Baby formulas contain vitamins A, D, K, C, choline, calcium, iron, and more to prevent deficiencies and to give tiny tots the most healthy beginning. All infant formulas must contain a minimum amount of 29 nutrients and maximum amounts of nine of those nutrients. (This rule does change, however, for certain “special care” infant formulas, such as preemie, metabolic, and amino acid-based baby formulas.) If you are not breastfeed at all, it’s recommended that you give your baby an iron-fortified formula containing between 4 to 12 milligrams of iron for the first year.

Beyond the must-haves above, many baby formulas also contain extras, like…

  • Long-chain fatty acids: Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA), which are two long-chain fatty acids found in breastmilk. While the AAP notes that this duo is important for early brain development, not all studies confirm the benefit of including them in infant formula

  • Probiotics and prebiotics: Probiotics are healthy live bacteria and prebiotics are what probiotics feed on. The pair are generally great for gut health, however, there’s still only limited evidence that theyre beneficial in baby formula, notes the AAP.

  • Human milk oligosaccharides: HMOs in breastmilk help to protect against infection and research shows that, when breastmilk isn't available, infant formula supplemented with HMOs may be considered as an alternative.

  • Lutein: Breastmilk naturally contains lutein, which is a carotenoid with antioxidant properties that works to aid eye health and cognitive development. It’s still unknown how impactful the add-in is to baby formula since research shows that infants absorb a lot more lutein when nursing than when consuming fortified infant formula.

What Types of Baby Formula are Available?

Beyond powdered, concentrate, and liquid, there are a number of different types of baby formula available today. Theyre all considered healthy and appropriate for infants, but there are key differences.

Cow’s Milk-Based Infant Formula

While regular cow’s milk is dangerous for infants under 12 months, cow’s milk-based baby formula is manufactured in such a way to ensure it’s safe and digestible. Like breastmilk, cow’s milk infant formula contains lactose, a milk sugar. (A sensitive or gentle infant formula typically has lower levels of lactose for babies with lactose sensitivity.) Today, cow’s milk-based baby formula accounts for 80% of all infant formulas on the market. And most babies tolerate it very well. For the ones who don’t, there’s a chance they have cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA), which means their small bellies can’t handle the whey and/or casein in cow’s milk. CMPA symptoms may affect your baby’s skin, digestion, even their breathing
Did you know? Condensed milk used to be recommended by pediatricians as an infant food from the 1930s to the 1940s.

Soy Infant Formula 

Soybean derived baby formula is free of lactose and cow’s milk protein, making it a must-pick for babies born with a rare disorder called galactosemia, where lactose cannot be tolerated. (Your baby will be screened for this at birth.) It’s important to note that many babies experience brief periods when they can’t digest lactose, but it’s extremely rare for infants to have significant lactose problems, according to the AAP. While some believe that soy baby formula helps to prevent or ease the symptoms of colic, there’s no evidence to support this. And, in the end, there are few instances in which soy formula should be selected over cow’s milk–based baby formula, notes the AAP.
Did you know? The first soy-based infant formula became available to the public in 1929. But like the other baby formulas of the time, soy formula lacked important vitamins and nutrients.

Hydrolyzed and Partially Hydrolyzed Infant Formula

Though these types of infant formulas sound complicated, it’s really all about the size of the proteins. Cow’s milk baby formula has large and intact proteins, but some babies have problems digesting them. When that happens, babies need an infant formula with smaller proteins. (Hydrolyzed means “broken down,” so hydrolyzed formulas have smaller easy-to-digest proteins.) Sensitive and gentle infant formulas usually have partially hydrolyzed protein that may help gassiness. Meanwhile, fully hydrolyzed baby formula is broken down even more and best for babies with more severe problems like cow’s milk protein allergy or multiple food allergies. 
Did you know? These types of infant formulas are often called “predigested,” since the proteins are already so small. 

Organic Baby Formula

For a baby formula to be “certified organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, at least 95% of the ingredients listed must be organic. So, that means, a cow’s milk organic infant formula has to come from cows that ate an organic diet. If it’s a plant-based formula, the plant source must have limited exposure to pesticides and be free of genetically modified organisms. All in all, organic formulas are pricey, and so far, there’s no evidence that they are better than non-organic baby formulas that contain the same nutrition and safety. 
Did you know? “Organic” doesn’t mean that your baby formula is all-natural. There are certain nutrients and preservatives that need to be in baby formula that can only be created synthetically.

Special Infant Formula

There are still other types of infant formula designed to fit the unique needs of little ones with special medical conditions or those who were born prematurely. If your baby’s pediatrician recommends a specialized formula, be sure to carefully follow their advice regarding the amount served, feeding schedules, and preparation, since special baby formulas can be quite different from regular infant formulas.

How To Choose The Right Infant Formula

  • Start with a standard commercial baby formula. Unless your baby’s pediatrician recommends otherwise, it’s good to start with standard cow’s milk infant formula—that’s what most babies do well on. Just be sure to avoid non-U.S. brands of baby formula since the FDA only regulates American baby formulas.

  • Consider cost. The cost of baby formula will have you kicking yourself for not filling your baby registry with 1,000 cans of infant formula! If your baby drinks 25 ounces of infant formula a day, it’ll cost you anywhere from $821 to $2,920 by their first birthday. So, it’s a good idea to consider your budget before choosing your go-to infant formula. Know that powdered baby formula will always be more affordable than liquid.

  • Choose convenience. Select a baby formula that’s easy for you to get from stores near you. Sure, there’s always online ordering, but with the risk of shipping delays, you might want to shop locally to avoid the added stress.

  • Try not to let marketing claims sway you. If you’ve read the claims on baby formula packaging, you know that some tout their brain-bolstering abilities and others insist that their product protects Baby’s immune system. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough scientific evidence to back most of these claims up.

  • Get support in your decision-making process. While getting infant formula intel from, say, your sister, your neighbor, social media, and Google can be helpful, you really need to get your baby formula advice straight from the pediatrician. They understand your baby’s health and medical history best, so they’re in an excellent position to guide you through your decision-making process. (They probably have a few free infant formula samples in the office, too!)

  • Take a deep breath. Remember your baby has unique needs, and there’s an infant formula out there that will help meet them. And if your sweet bub starts having issues—such as severe gas, colic, reflux, vomiting, or diarrhea—never hesitate to talk to the pediatrician to see if your infant formula may be the culprit.

About Gabrielle McPherson

Gabrielle McPherson, MS, RDN, LDN is registered dietitian in Missouri who specializes in community and pediatric nutrition. Gaby is passionate about encouraging families to eat well in simple, practical ways that are realistic...and delicious! When not working, Gaby loves cooking, baking, and making messes and memories with her sous-chef/preschooler Charlotte.

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.