What Is Hypoallergenic Formula?

Babies with a cow's milk allergy may need a formula with pre-digested proteins

Father and son

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Hypoallergenic formula is for formula-fed babies with cow's milk allergies. This type of formula is made with pre-digested milk proteins to make digestion easier for babies who have this food allergy. It is only needed for babies with cow's milk allergies and is not intended to address other potentially diet-related issues such as gas or fussiness.

The ongoing baby formula shortage has made accessing the right baby formula difficult for many families. Luckily, there are more options for hypoallergenic formula than ever before, so you should be able to find one that works for your baby. However, be sure to contact your child's pediatrician to ensure you choose an ideal product for your baby's needs. Learn more about hypoallergenic baby formula and when it's needed.

What Is Hypoallergenic Formula?

Hypoallergenic formulas are recommended by pediatricians for babies who have a problem digesting cow's milk-based formula. The proteins in hypoallergenic formula, also known as elemental formula, have been pre-digested so that large milk proteins are broken down into smaller ones. This process makes the formula less likely to cause allergic reactions. Hypoallergenic formulas may be:

  • Partially hydrolyzed, in which the proteins are only partially broken down (these formulas are not truly hypoallergenic) 
  • Extensively hydrolyzed, containing the smallest milk proteins
  • Free amino acid-based, in which the proteins are split into their building blocks, amino acids. If a baby can't tolerate even extensively hydrolyzed formula, amino acid-based is the next step (and is even more expensive than hydrolyzed formula).

What Babies Need Hypoallergenic Formula?

The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends that hypoallergenic formulas only be used in infants with clear medical symptoms that would indicate the use of a special formula. Babies with sensitivities may not need a hypoallergenic formula unless they have a true allergy.

The hydrolyzation process does change the nutritional value of the formula. And hypoallergenic formula is expensive, usually around three times the cost of regular formula. (Sometimes, insurance companies will cover some of the costs of this medically necessary formula.)

Soy-Based Formulas

Typically, it is recommended to avoid soy milk formula. Soy milk formula may seem like a good option for babies who are allergic to cow's milk, but it usually isn't. Often, these babies are also allergic to soy proteins.

How to Tell If Your Baby Needs Special Formula

Babies with severe allergic reactions to food or milk proteins will display some of the following symptoms. If your baby does, talk to your pediatrician about whether changing formula might help.

  • Diarrhea
  • Eczema
  • Extreme irritability or colic
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

In some cases, if you have an older child with severe food allergies or a severe family history of food allergies, your child's pediatrician may recommend starting your baby on a hypoallergenic formula from the beginning. If possible, most pediatricians recommend that all infants, but especially those at risk of allergy, be exclusively breastfed and only supplemented with hypoallergenic formula as necessary.

Where to Find Hypoallergenic Formula

Most leading formula retailers (supermarkets, drugstores, big box stores) carry hypoallergenic baby formula options. If your baby's formula is covered by insurance, you may need to purchase it through a medical supply company.

Since there are several options, see if your doctor can give you samples of a few different hypoallergenic formulas. Once you know which one works best for your baby, you can buy in larger quantities.

What to Expect From Hypoallergenic Formula

Parents can expect a few changes in their babies once they start on hypoallergenic formula. Some of those changes might include:

A Different Smell

The processing that removes the proteins that can trigger allergic reactions also means the formula will smell and taste a little different. Most babies don't even notice the difference since their taste buds are still developing.

A Clearer Color

Without those heavy milk proteins, ​a hypoallergenic formula will also appear more clear in color than regular formula, but it still has the nutrition your baby needs.

Changes in Stool

It's pretty common to see a change in the color, consistency, or frequency of a baby's poop when you change formulas. Especially if your child had a lot of loose stools before, the new formula might help their bowel movements be more solid and less frequent. However, call your child's doctor right away if you see any white, watery, red, or black stools. 

3 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.
  1. Vanderhoof J, Moore N, de Boissieu D. Evaluation of an amino acid-based formula in infants not responding to extensively hydrolyzed protein formula. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2016;63(5):531-533. doi:10.1097/MPG.0000000000001374

  2. Greer FR, Sicherer SH, Burks AW. The effects of early nutritional interventions on the development of atopic disease in infants and children: The role of maternal dietary restriction, breastfeeding, hydrolyzed formulas, and timing of introduction of allergenic complementary foods. Pediatrics. 2019;143(4). doi:10.1542/peds.2019-0281

  3. Caffarelli C, Baldi F, Bendandi B, et al. Cow's milk protein allergy in children: a practical guide. Ital J Pediatr. 2010;36:5. doi:10.1186/1824-7288-36-5

Additional Reading

By Jennifer White
Jennifer White has authored parenting books and has worked in childcare and education fields for over 15 years.