The 8 Best Infant Formulas of 2021, According to a Dietitian

The best infant formulas on the market for your growing little one

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Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Gerber Good Start GentlePro at Amazon

"It is 100 percent whey with a portion of the proteins predigested or hydrolyzed."

Best Budget: Parent’s Choice Infant Formula Milk-Based Powder with Iron at Walmart

"Parent’s Choice is a wonderful, safe, and appropriate infant formula to use."

Best Organic: Happy Baby Organic at Amazon

"This high-quality formula is made with milk from cows raised on organic farms and is non-GMO."

Best Organic Runner-Up: Earth's Best Organic Dairy Infant Formula with Iron at Amazon

"The USDA-Certified Organic Formula is produced from organic milk from cows that are fed certified organic grain and hay."

Best for Reflux: Enfamil AR at Amazon

"It's ten times thicker in the bottle and then thickens ten times more when it hits the stomach acid."

Best for Fussy/ Gassy Babies: Similac Sensitive at Amazon

"The unique feature of Similac Sensitive is that it is lactose-free."

Best for Milk Allergies: Similac Alimentum at Amazon

"Alimentum is unique for its hydrolyzed, or predigested, casein protein structure."

Best Alternative Milk Formula: Holle at babysbestfood.com

"Holle uses a goat milk base rather than a cow milk base typically found in American products."

Have you ever ventured to the infant formula section of your local pharmacy or grocery store? If you have, particularly as an exhausted new parent, chances are you left a little overwhelmed.

The great news is that all infant formulas are tightly regulated by the FDA, so they are all safe choices for your little one. However, it is challenging as a parent to feel that you're making the "right" choice. Rest assured that you do not need to make this choice alone. Always speak with your child's pediatrician to determine which formula—and how much to feed—is appropriate for your child.

While the infant formula market is certainly saturated, it is important to remember a few key details when shopping for formulas.

What to Look for in an Infant Formula

Ingredients:

Formula ingredients are tightly regulated by the FDA. There are certain criteria that all infant formulas have to meet, including a certain percentage from proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and a very specific vitamin and mineral profile. Some formulas contain additional beneficial ingredients, such as prebiotics, probiotics, ARA, DHA, and iron.

Whey and casein are the most common protein sources. Vegetable oils such as coconut, corn, soy, palm olein, palm kernel, palm, and high oleic safflower are common fat sources. Maltodextrin and lactose (a sugar found in human breastmilk) are frequently used as carbohydrates.

Which formula you choose should depend on the nutrition needs of your child. Some children cannot tolerate whey or casein from cow's milk and do better on a goat milk formula. Always look at the ingredient list, and discuss your infant's nutrient needs with their pediatrician.

DHA and ARA:

DHA and ARA are two types of long-chain fatty acids (LC-PUFA) that are typically found in breastmilk and have been shown to play a positive role in early neurodevelopment and child cognitive outcomes. While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) acknowledges that specific fats such as LC-PUFA are important for early brain development, ARA and DHA are not required ingredients in infant formula. Note that ARA and DHA are FDA-approved ingredients.

Iron:

According to the AAP, all full-term healthy babies receive enough iron from their mothers to last for the first four months of life. If a baby is 100 percent formula-fed, it is recommended to use an iron-fortified formula for the first year. If a baby is fed a mixture of breastmilk and formula, speak with your pediatrician to determine whether iron supplementation is needed.

Prebiotics and Probiotics:

Probiotics (healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (food for probiotics) are not required in infant formula, but may improve the gut microflora of the formula-fed infant. A clinical report published by AAP states that probiotics and prebiotics added to infant formula do not appear to be harmful for healthy infants, but "the clinical efficacy for their addition is insufficient to recommend routine use in these formulas."

Form:

Formula comes in powder and pre-mixed, ready-to-feed liquid. Powder formula usually requires mixing with water, while liquid formulas do not necessitate preparation. Some formulas come in both forms, which is convenient, especially if you prefer pre-mixed formula for on-the-go, and powder for at-home use.

Price:

Price is not directly correlated with quality. Be sure to speak with your pediatrician to do your research on what brand and product is most appropriate for your infant. Powder formula is generally less expensive than ready-to-feed, pre-mixed formula. Some supplements have generic counterparts, which may be less expensive.

Here, the best infant formulas:

Best Overall: Gerber Good Start GentlePro

Gerber Good Start GentlePro

Courtesy of Amazon

Gerber Good Start GentlePro is an excellent overall formula. Aside from having the basic necessary nutrients, the Gerber line takes it one step further with their “Comfort Proteins.” Any milk-based infant formula contains milk-based proteins known as casein and whey, and traditional infant formulas contain a combination of the two.

However, Gerber Good Start GentlePro is 100 percent whey with a portion of the proteins predigested or hydrolyzed. Why does this matter? Casein is historically the more difficult protein to digest, at times, curdling in the stomach acid. With predigested whey protein, we are giving those little bellies the most gentle introductory food. 

In addition to the partially hydrolyzed whey protein, this formula contains a mix of vegetable oils (derived from palm olein, soy, coconut, and high oleic safflower or sunflower oil), lactose, corn maltodextrin, 2'-O-Fucosyllactose (a prebiotic), ARA, DHA, and all necessary vitamins and minerals.

Good to Know

There is not a "one size fits all" when it comes to infant formula, and an infant's needs change over time. You may need to do a bit of trial and error—with your pediatrician's approval—before finding the infant formula that works best for your child.

Best Budget: Parent’s Choice Infant Formula Milk-Based Powder with Iron

Parent's Choice Infant Formula

Courtesy of Walmart

“Can I use generic brand formula for my infant?” This might be the number one question Lauren Cohen gets asked as a pediatric dietitian, and the answer is a resounding "YES."

Parent’s Choice is a wonderful, safe, and appropriate infant formula to use. Comparable to popular Similac formulas, Parent's Choice Complete Comfort Infant Formula Milk-Based Powder with Iron contains easy-to-digest partially hydrolyzed whey protein with prebiotic 2'-FL HMO for immune system support, as well as lutein, vitamin E, ARA, and DHA.

The budget-friendly formula offers complete infant nutrition that's made with non-GMO ingredients and no artificial growth hormones. The predominant carbohydrate source is corn maltodextrin, while the majority of the fat content comes from high oleic safflower or sunflower, soy, and coconut oils.

Best Organic: Happy Baby Organic

Happy Family Baby Organic Infant Formula

Courtesy of Amazon

While the pediatric nutrition market is, admittedly, saturated with brands—few stand out like Happy Baby. The brand known for its fruit and veggie purees is highly regarded because of its commitment to affordable, organic nutrition.

Happy Baby currently has three organic infant formulas on the market—two standard products and one sensitive product (comparable to Similac Sensitive). Happy Baby's Organic Infant Formula with Iron is made with milk from cows raised on organic farms and is non-GMO. The blend includes DHA and ARA to support your infant's brain and eye development, as well as probiotics to promote optimal digestive health.

Of note, this product does not contain any corn syrup solids or maltodextrin. Instead, the formula uses organic lactose, nonfat milk, whey protein concentrate, and a blend of palm, soy, coconut, and high oleic oils.

Best Organic Runner-Up: Earth's Best Organic Dairy Infant Formula with Iron

If you prefer an organic product, Earth's Best Organic Infant Powder with Iron is another excellent option. The USDA-Certified Organic Formula is produced from organic milk from cows that are fed certified organic grain and hay grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. The ingredients are non-GMO, and the product is free of added corn syrup solids.

The formula is fortified with iron, contains prebiotic fiber to boost immunity, and includes lutein for eye health. Earth's Best contains omega-3 DHA and omega-6 ARA to promote optimal brain and eye health. The primary carbohydrate source is lactose, while protein comes mostly from organic nonfat milk and whey protein concentrate. Fat sources include organic palm, soy, coconut, and high oleic oils.

Good to Know

Many hospitals provide you with formula to take home, which is helpful to have on hand, even for parents who plan to breastfeed in case of supply or feeding issues.

Best for Reflux: Enfamil AR

Enfamil A.R. Infant Formula

Courtesy of Amazon

A little bit of acid reflux is normal for everyone, babies included. For some infants, however, gastrointestinal reflux can not only impair intake but impair growth. Symptoms of significant infant reflux include vomiting up breastmilk or formula after feeds, back-arching, irritability, and food refusal.

Historically, physicians would recommend adding rice or oatmeal cereal to baby bottles to help thicken the consistency and weigh the product down in the baby's belly. The AAP recommends against adding cereal directly to baby's bottles, but there may be an alternative formula option on the market that works similarly if your pediatrician approves.

Enfamil AR or Enfamil “Added Rice” is ten times thicker in the bottle and then thickens ten times more when it hits the stomach acid. The thickened formula holds down in the belly, preventing it from refluxing up the esophagus and into the mouth, allowing for a more comfortable feeding experience.

Enfamil AR contains a variety of carbohydrates, including rice starch, lactose, maltodextrin, galactooligosaccharides, and polydextrose. Galactooligosaccharides and polydextrose are also sources of probiotics. The primary protein source is nonfat milk, and the majority of the fat is derived from palm olein, coconut, soy, and high oleic sunflower oils.

Best for Fussy/ Gassy Babies: Similac Sensitive

Similac Sensitive Infant Formula with Iron Powder

Courtesy of Amazon

Similac Sensitive is a unique lactose-free formula designed for healthy babies who are simply fussy. Lactose intolerance is very rare in infants, but lactose does go through a fermentation process to digest and absorb, which can cause gas and discomfort for the baby.

This formula is most appropriate when a baby is fussy and gassy but otherwise growing well. The main protein source is milk protein isolate, and the majority of the carbohydrates come from corn syrup, sugar, and galactooligosaccharides. The fat content is derived from high oleic safflower oil and coconut oil. It also contains DHA and ARA.

Good to know

Formulas can look very similar. Any overtired parent could easily pick up Similac NeoSure in place of Enfamil NeuroPro. The Enfamil line alone has over 11 products. Be sure to read labels carefully before purchasing a formula.

Best for Milk Allergies: Similac Alimentum

Similac Alimentum Hypoallergenic Infant Formula

Courtesy of Amazon

Occasionally, infants will present with a milk-protein allergy. This is when the body cannot break down casein and whey proteins. This milk-protein allergy has several symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, weight failure, and occasionally blood in the stool. Should your little one present with these symptoms, you should contact your pediatrician. Because most formulas use milk-based ingredients as the primary protein source, infants with a milk-protein allergy require special formula.

Similac Alimentum is unique for its hydrolyzed, or predigested, casein protein structure. The main protein source is casein hydrolysate, and the carbohydrates come from sugar. Medium Chain Triglycerides, soy oil, and safflower oil are the primary fat sources. Similac Alimentum is also free of corn and palm olein oil, which may promote softer stool.

Alimentum certainly has a strong smell and taste, but taste is usually not a barrier to intake for infants who require this product. It also is a more expensive product, which is important to note. In some cases, depending on the severity of symptoms, physicians may be able to write a prescription to help cover the cost of this formula. 

Best Alternative Milk Formula: Holle

Holle Stage 1

Courtesy of BabysBestFood.com

Certified using the EU standards as opposed to the FDA standards, Holle uses a goat milk base rather than a cow milk base typically found in American products. Some children with milk-protein allergy or intolerance may better tolerate a goat's milk base.

Holle's Goat milk 1 is appropriate for babies from birth to six months. The formula uses organic full-fat goat milk powder which contains DHA, as well as organic maltodextrin, lactose, sunflower seed oil, rapeseed oil, and algae oil.

Holle is presently unavailable in the United States but can be purchased online and is generally considered safe for consumption. A 2019 study of common European formulas, including HiPP and Holle (note that this was on cow-milk, not goat milk), showed that most formulas met the majority of the FDA standard for minimum nutrient requirements; however, there were some concerns over a lack of labeling for linoleic acid. When listed, the formulas did meet the requirements for linolenic acid.

Good to Know

Note that purchasing a European formula from a third-party seller means that the formula is imported outside of normal supply chains, bypassing safety regulations, which increases the potential for tampering with or contaminating the formula. If you choose to purchase European formula, choose a trusted third-party seller.

Final Verdict

Gerber Good Start GentlePro (view at Amazon) covers all your bases, and then some. It’s a perfectly nutritious—and gentle—place to begin with formula.

FAQs

How much formula should I feed my infant?

The amount of formula we feed our infants depends on the infant's age and the individual needs of the baby. Formula is designed to provide the same nutritional value as breast milk, so we commonly recommend the same volumes that a breastfed infant would take.

For the first few weeks of life, infants typically take about 2 to 3 ounces every 3 to 4 hours. As your infant grows, they will start to take larger volumes spaced approximately every 4 to 5 daytime, waking hours. This will also support healthy sleeping patterns.

On average, infants should be getting around 80 to 100 calories per kilogram of body weight, so as they grow, so will their formula needs. Infants and children, however, have remarkable internal hunger and satiety cues. That means that infants can self-identify when they are hungry and full and should naturally support their growth needs by listening to their hunger and fullness cues.

Can formula cause constipation?

There are certainly anecdotal reports that formula causes gas and constipation. It can be common that an infant has some constipation following a transition from breastmilk to formula. If your infant has constipation on formula, you have a few options. Check with your physician to ensure your infant is getting enough hydration. They may recommend a little bit of prune juice to help move the system along. If after two weeks the constipation has not improved, you can consider switching formulas, with the support of your pediatrician.

How do I prepare infant formula? Do I need bottled water?

Preparing infant formula is unique to each product. Always check the formula packaging to confirm mixing instructions. Be sure to measure the water first and add the powdered formula. This ensures adequate calorie concentration. If the powder is added first, we may inadvertently create a more concentrated final product which could contribute to constipation and discomfort.

It is perfectly appropriate to use filtered, bottled, deep well, and/or baby water for mixing infant formula but not essential. Tap water that is fluoridated is the preferred water source. If you are using deep well water and live in an area with livestock or mushroom farms, it would be advisable to get the water tested for bacterias that may cause Botulism. Using baby or bottled water can get expensive and providers would recommend supplementing with fluoride at six months of age.

Is it safe to mix breastmilk and formula in the same bottle?

It is safe to mix breast milk and formula, but you must be incredibly mindful of what and how you are mixing. Mixing the two can be done for several reasons. If your child struggles with weight gain, your pediatrician or Registered Dietitian may recommend adding a teaspoon of formula to expressed breast milk. Sometimes, if maternal supply is insufficient, providers may recommend formula and breast milk. If that is the case, be sure to mix and prepare the formula separately and then add it to the breast milk to ensure that the calorie concentration is correct.

My primarily breastfed baby receives some formula. Do I still need to supplement with vitamin D drops?

Yes, even for partially formula-fed infants, it is still recommended that you supplement with Vitamin D drops. Adequate Vitamin D from formula is met with the intake of 1000 milliliters (1 Liter or approximately 33.8 ounces) per day. Always speak with your pediatrician about your baby's individual supplement needs before starting or stopping any product.

How do I know if a formula is working for my baby?

You will know if the formula is working for your infant the same way you will know if breastfeeding is working for your infant. You will have an appropriately growing little one with good urine output who is stooling regularly and meeting their developmental milestones.

Why Trust Verywell Family?

Infant formulas are stressful to navigate. Lauren Cohen MS, RD, LDN spends nearly every day of her professional career working with parents and caregivers to help educate on formula and simplify what this industry has made quite confusing. It’s not just parents who are confused—a big part of her job is working with pediatricians to continue to educate them on the ever-changing products.

To write this article, Lauren consulted with trusted peers in the pediatric healthcare system and referenced multiple studies and papers. She looked to the AAP for infant feeding and formula recommendations and the FDA for infant formula regulations. She used her experience in clinical practice to inform her category-specific choices and furthered her education on formula ingredients by diving deeper into published clinical research.

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Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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