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A Parent's Guide to Infant Formula

Rachael Moshman
March 13, 2015

You've made the decision to formula feed, but don't know where to start. Learn how to choose a baby formula, how to prepare and store it and how much to give your baby.

Buy it, mix it, warm it. Seems simple, right? Feeding your little one formula may sound more convenient than breastfeeding, but there are many things to consider. Here's what you need to know about infant formula before you have a hungry baby on your hands.

  • Choosing a Formula
    Walking down the baby formula aisle can feel overwhelming. All of those options can make choosing the right product seem difficult. But don't worry, says Suzanne Barston, author of "Bottled Up" and the Fearless Formula Feeder blog/community. All formulas are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so no matter which one you buy, your baby will receive the nutrients she needs. The FDA requires every manufacturer to include 29 specific nutrients in particular amounts, including protein, fat, iron and calcium. There are also special formulations for babies with particular dietary needs, such as children who are lactose intolerant. These may include additional ingredients, such as fatty acids like DHA and ARA.

    Barston says that parents should make their choice based on their research and pediatric advice. You may need to switch formulas a few times until you find one that your baby is comfortable with. "What works for one baby may not work for another," she says. If you've tried multiple formulas that don't agree with your baby, consult with your pediatrician for advice on specialty baby formulas.

    For newborns, Barston recommends using a premixed, ready-to-feed (RTF) formula for the first month. This is because RTF baby formulas are sterile, and when used with sterilized bottles and nipples, they can reduce the risk of bacterial contamination that comes with mixing formula. Barston explains that contamination in mixing formula is extremely rare, "but when we're talking tiny babies, even the smallest risk is one you want to minimize. Ready-to-feed formula allows you to do that." The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also notes that RTF formulas can limit your newborn's exposure to fluoride, which is found in some tap water.

    For more tips on selecting the right formula, Check out Your Guide to Choosing Baby Formula.
  • Making and Storing Formula
    Your chosen infant formula will come with comprehensive instructions on the back of the package, so follow them. The water you use should be safe -- if you're not sure how safe your tap water is, the AAP recommends bringing it to a boil on the stove for one minute, then allowing it to cool to room temperature for up to 30 minutes. Bottles don't need to be warmed up before feeding time -- room-temperature or even cold bottles are fine. If your baby prefers warm formula, be cautious of the microwave -- they heat liquids unevenly and may result in pockets of too-hot formula that can burn your baby's mouth. Instead, follow the above advice about boiling on the stove and letting it cool. Always test the warmth of the water in the bottle by shaking a few drops on the inside of your wrist.

    When mixing up a bottle, Barston says to add the water to the bottle first, then the powder. "Shake the bottle gently, making sure no powder is stuck in the nipple," she adds. This helps the powder dissolves completely so it doesn't clump.

    Store unopened packages of baby formula at room temperature (not in the fridge!), and always check the expiration date before using the formula. Once opened, formula actually has a very short shelf life. If your baby can't finish a prepared bottle in one sitting, throw it out. It may seem wasteful, but the AAP recommends tossing any formula left in your baby's bottle after one hour -- longer than that leaves it open to contamination and germs. If you must prepare bottles in advance, store them in the fridge for 24 hours. Open packets of formula can be stored in a covered container in the fridge, but should be used within 48 hours.
  • Feeding Your Baby Formula
    Linda Roberts, certified doula, childbirth educator and director of Belly Beautiful: Childbirth Education and Lactation Support, says many parents make a bottle to calm a baby and then push for it to be consumed so it doesn't go to waste -- even if the baby isn't hungry. "You don't need to offer a bottle every time the baby squeaks," she says. Let your baby decide when he's full, and don't pressure him to finish the bottle if he doesn't want to.

    Instead, watch your baby for signs to learn when he is hungry or full. "Formula-feeding parents can use feeding cues and responsive bottle feeding," Barston says. "These are great ways to bond and help your baby learn to regulate his food intake based on satiety."

On average, a baby eats about two-and-a-half ounces per pound of body weight, topping off at about 32 ounces a day, Barston shares. But remember: All babies are different -- some might eat two ounces of formula every two hours, while others might have six ounces every six hours. It's all about finding the routine your baby needs.

Rachael Moshman, M.Ed, is a specialist in infant and toddler development and has worked with hundreds of families with babies. She is also a mom herself.

* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.

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