1. Resources
  2. /
  3. Parenting
  4. /
  5. Pregnancy & newborns

Your Guide to Choosing Baby Formula

Erica Loop
March 9, 2015

There's a lot to consider when it comes to shopping for baby formula. This guide will help you understand the ingredients, supplements and allergy concerns you'll come across.

Take a walk down the formula aisle and you'll find powders, liquids and ready-made products that all claim to be "the best" for your baby. Is your head spinning yet? You've heard that the breast is best, but more than 37 percent of infants have diets that are at least supplemented by formula, according to a 2011 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey. Whether you're exclusively bottle-feeding or need to pad your baby's diet, picking a baby formula can be overwhelming. Understanding the facts can help you make a safe, healthy choice for your baby.
 

  • Powder or Liquid?
    When choosing between powders and liquid concentrate, the differences really boil down to ease of use and cost. Powder concentrates require measuring and mixing before you can serve them to your baby, and they tend to be a little messy. Liquid concentrates often cost more than their powder counterparts because they are easier to prepare. Ready-to-feed formulas require no messy mixing, but come with the highest price tag for the convenience.
     
  • Milk or Soy?
    With all the hype over dairy-free milk, you may wonder if it's worth it. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that about 80 percent of all formula sold is cow's milk-based, and that these formulas are specially treated to make the protein more digestible for tiny stomachs. It also has added iron to reduce the risk of iron-deficiency anemia.

    Soy formulas, not surprisingly, contain soy protein. As a lactose-free option, these formulas are popular choices for babies who can't digest milk products or are sensitive to lactose.

    As long as your baby doesn't have allergies, iron-fortified cow's milk formula is a common choice. There's no need to complicate things if your baby can drink cow's milk products without a problem. Tania Koerber, a registered dietitian, licensed nutritionist and board certified specialist in pediatric nutrition, says, "Parents should be conservative when switching formulas, and seek professional advice before doing so. Babies should be started on standard formulas first and only be switched to specialized formulas as needed."
     
  • Allergy Free?
    What if your baby does have allergies? This makes choosing the right formula a bit trickier. You see words such as "hydrolyzed" and "hypoallergenic," and may wonder how these may help your infant's sensitivities. Hydrolyzed formulas (often called hypoallergenic) have proteins that are predigested, or already broken down. They may help to reduce the risk for children who have family histories of food allergies, but they aren't cow's milk-free. If your baby already has a dairy allergy, this isn't the way to go.

    If your baby is truly allergic to dairy, you need to look for a completely milk-free baby formula, notes the AAP. These include soy-based and amino-based formulas. If your baby doesn't have an actual allergy, but instead has a sensitivity, lactose-free formulas are cow-based products that may do the trick.
     
  • Added Ingredients or Unnecessary Extras?
    You've got a handle on the typical types of formula, but what about those so-called "brain boosters"? Choline, DHA, probiotics and other fancy words dot the formula aisle, but is it all clever marketing or are they truly healthy options? Fatty acids, such as DHA, are added to most baby formulas, and there are claims that these ingredients can help your baby's brain to develop. Petite Nutrition's Anne London, a pediatric registered dietitian, says, "Choosing an iron-fortified, brand-name infant formula as opposed to a generic brand is advisable, given there is much more research to support these, and often they use higher-quality ingredients. Choosing a formula with DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid) can be beneficial for eye and brain health. Discuss your formula choice for your baby with your pediatrician because she knows your baby."
     
  • Organic Options or Healthy Hype?
    What about organics? If you feed your preschooler organic apples and check the content of her cereal for all-natural ingredients, shouldn't your baby's formula be the same? Organic brands claim to be healthier, but London feels that you should skip organic infant formulas and save your money for organic baby food -- there's not enough research to recommend these over brand-name infant formulas.


Choosing a formula takes a combination of expert opinion and careful consumerism. Be prepared the next time you head to the grocery store. Get informed on the types of formula out there and have a discussion with your baby's pediatrician. This will help you make the best decision for your baby's nutritional needs.

Erica Loop has an MS in child development. She is a mom, educator and freelance writer specializing in all things parenting.

* 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.

Leave a comment

Create a free account with Care.com and join our community today.

Related content

How much should you pay for a babysitter?