700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

How to Choose a Baby Formula

Nov 18, 2021
Baby bottle feeding.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends human milk as the sole source of nutrition for the first six months of life. However, if human milk is not available or not an option for a variety of reasons, a baby formula should be used to help meet a baby’s full nutrition needs.

Choosing a formula, or even walking into the baby formula aisle at the grocery store, can be overwhelming for a parent. There are many different brands and types of formula available, which may make a new parent question which one is best. The good news is that the Food and Drug Association (FDA) regulates infant formula production and ensures that all baby formulas have the right amount of nutrients to meet the needs of babies 0-12 months of age. European formulas have also become a popular choice. However, they are not regulated by the FDA, so the standards for nutrients (i.e. iron) and production of these formulas may vary.

What Is Contained in Baby Formula?

Baby formulas have a specific ratio of carbohydrates, fat, and protein and generally match the composition of human milk. Formulas come in a variety of forms, including powder, concentrated liquid, and ready-to-feed. Iron and other vitamins and minerals are added to the formula to meet all of the nutrition needs for babies.

Which Is Better: Brand Name or Generic? Organic or Non-organic?

There are both brand name and generic versions of standard baby formulas available. Generic versions are similar in composition but could be less expensive. Organic formulas are also available and follow the same standards as non-organic formulas. However, they are made with certified organic ingredients (regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) and do not contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Organic formulas receive a certified organic label, which tends to make them more costly.

How Do We Choose Between Cow’s Milk-Based and Soy Formulas?

Most babies can tolerate a “standard” cow’s milk-based baby formula. Standard baby formulas are typically made with a cow’s milk protein designed to be easily digested by babies. However, it is important to note that the protein from cow’s milk bought in the dairy section of your grocery store is hard for babies to digest and should not be used before 12 months of age.

Soy formulas are also a potential option for term babies. These formulas contain soy protein instead of cow’s milk protein. Soy formulas can serve as an alternative for babies that may not be able to digest lactose or if the family prefers a vegetarian/vegan option.

What Other Types of Formula Are Available for Other Dietary Needs?

Cow’s milk formulas that are low in lactose are available. Lactose (carbohydrate) intolerance is rare in babies and different than if a baby has a cow’s milk protein allergy. If there is a concern for a cow’s milk protein allergy, soy formulas are not the best option and the baby may need a specialty formula.

There are several formulas available that claim to be more sensitive on your baby's tummy. These "sensitive" formulas can be used if your baby shows signs of mild intolerance (i.e. fussiness, gas, spit-up) to either milk-based or soy-based formulas. However, remember all babies are different. One formula that may help relieve these symptoms in one baby may not help another.

Additionally, there are many other specialty formulas available that are designed for babies who show signs of an allergy, severe intolerance, or have a specific medical condition. In these situations, we would recommend meeting with your pediatrician or registered dietitian to help decide which formula would be best for your baby’s specific needs.

No matter which formula meets your baby's needs best, we encourage you to make sure it is specifically made for babies and that it meets FDA guidelines. When preparing formula from powder or concentrated liquid, always follow the directions listed on the container unless otherwise instructed by a health care professional. And when in doubt, ask your pediatrician or registered dietitian for guidance.

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Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Rebecca M. Romero, RD, LD, CLC
Clinical Nutrition and Lactation

Rebecca M. Romero, RD, LD, CLC, is a registered and licensed dietitian, as well as a clinical leader for the Department of Clinical Nutrition and Lactation. Rebecca also maintains her certification as a lactation counselor. She specializes in the area of Neonatology, with a special interest in the Small Baby Program at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

chelsea britton
Chelsea Britton, MS, RD, LD, CLC
Clinical Nutrition and Lactation

Chelsea Britton, MS, RD, LD, CLC is a registered and licensed dietitian. She specializes in the areas of Neonatology and Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia and currently works as a clinical dietitian in the Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia Outpatient Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Chelsea also maintains her certification as a certified lactation counselor.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.