Choosing a Formula for Your Baby

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If you are trying to choose an infant formula for your baby, you might feel overwhelmed by the options available. It is not as simple as simply walking into the store and picking up a can of formula. You may find yourself overwhelmed with the options. Here's a breakdown of the most common types and when you might choose one over the other for your baby.

Cow's Milk-Based Formulas

This is the most common type of formula made. About 80% of the formula sold will be based on a cow's milk protein. The milk proteins are treated to help them be broken down by your baby's digestive tract. These formulas also have iron added to them, which is recommend by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to help prevent iron deficiency anemia in children under one.

You may also notice that many of these formulas also have docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) added to them. These additives are thought to be beneficial when it comes to the development of your baby's brain and eyes, but these fatty acids are still being researched.

Soy-Based Formulas

Some babies do not tolerate cow's milk-based formulas very well. This may be a temporary problem or be something that is ongoing. The AAP notes that soy formulas are safe for term infants (they are not recommended for pre-term infants) and will provide the necessary nutrition for normal growth and development, but that they are unnecessary except in two situations:

  • If an infant has galactosemia or hereditary lactase deficiency
  • In situations where a vegetarian diet is preferred

Research shows that soy formulas do not reduce the amount of gas or spitting up, so this should not be what a parent switches to if their baby is having digestive issues. (Baby bottles have also been implicated in digestive upset, so your choice there matters too.)

Hydrolyzed Formulas

You may hear that there are pre-digested formulas available, what that means is that the cow's milk proteins have been broken down into smaller proteins to make them easier to digest for babies. These formulas are also more costly.

If you have a baby who is at a higher risk of developing allergies or who have shown symptoms of allergies to other formulas, your pediatrician may recommend a hydrolyzed formula.

Specialized Formulas

These formulas are really expensive and may even be prescription only. They are designed for babies who have very specific diseases. You may not be able to locate these easily and may even have to special order through a pharmacy or your pediatrician.

A Note About Iron

Most infant formulas are fortified with iron. You will also find low iron formulas. Breast milk, which is what infant formula tries to mimic, has lower levels of iron than formula. However, the type of iron in breast milk is very efficiently absorbed. A low iron formula mimics breast milk's levels. But unlike breast milk, where nearly 100% of the iron is absorbed by the baby, the iron in formula is not absorbed as well. So even though an iron-fortified formula has more iron, the baby absorbs less. This means that you should probably not choose a low iron formula without a good reason. In addition, you should always speak to your doctor before giving an infant any additional supplemental iron.

Other Factors to Consider

There are a lot of things that might go into your decision as to which formula you buy. This probably includes:

  • Availability: Can you easily find the formula where you normally shop? Do you have easy access to quality water to mix?
  • Usability: Does your baby tolerate the formula well? Is baby growing appropriately?
  • Affordability: Baby formula is expensive, but there is variation in the prices of different brands.

After all of these factors are taken into account you will likely have at least a few good options given all of the formulas that are out there. If you are still having difficulty deciding, remember that you can always change if it's not working.

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  1. Bhatia J, Greer F. Use of soy protein-based formulas in infant feeding. Pediatrics. 2008;121(5):1062-8. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-0564

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