Infant formula: Your questions answered

Here's what you need to know to choose the best formula for your baby. By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you're planning to feed your baby infant formula, you might have questions. Is one brand of infant formula better than another? Are generic brands OK? Is soy-based formula better than cow's milk formula?

Here's what you need to know about infant formula.

What are the main types of infant formula?

Commercial infant formulas are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Three major types are available:

  • Cow's milk formulas. Most infant formula is made with cow's milk that's been altered to resemble breast milk. This gives the formula the right balance of nutrients — and makes the formula easier to digest. Most babies do well on cow's milk formula. Some babies, however — such as those allergic to the proteins in cow's milk — need other types of infant formula.
  • Soy-based formulas. Soy-based formulas can be useful if you want to exclude animal proteins from your child's diet. Soy-based infant formulas might also be an option for babies who are intolerant or allergic to cow's milk formula or to lactose, a carbohydrate naturally found in cow's milk. However, babies who are allergic to cow's milk might also be allergic to soy milk.
  • Protein hydrolysate formulas. These types of formulas contain protein that's been broken down (hydrolyzed) — partially or extensively — into smaller sizes than are those in cow's milk and soy-based formulas. Protein hydrolysate formulas are meant for babies who don't tolerate cow's milk or soy-based formulas. Extensively hydrolyzed formulas are an option for babies who have a protein allergy.

In addition, specialized formulas are available for premature infants and babies who have specific medical conditions.

Why use formula instead of regular milk?

Commercial infant formulas provide all the nutrients that most infants need. Milk from animals or milk substitute from plant sources doesn't contain these nutrients in a healthy balance for an infant. For example, infants younger than age 1 who drink cow's milk are at risk of iron deficiency.

What infant formula preparations are available?

Infant formulas come in three forms. The best choice depends on your budget and desire for convenience:

  • Powdered formula. Powdered formula is the least expensive. Each scoop of powdered formula must be mixed with water.
  • Concentrated liquid formula. This type of formula also must be mixed with water.
  • Ready-to-use formula. Ready-to-use formula is the most convenient type of infant formula. It doesn't need to be mixed with water. It's also the most expensive option.

Be sure to follow any mixing instructions carefully.

What's the difference between generic and brand-name infant formula?

All infant formulas sold in the United States must meet the nutrient standards set by the FDA. Although manufacturers might vary in their formula recipes, the FDA requires that all formulas contain the minimum recommended amount — and no more than the maximum amount — of nutrients that infants need.

Jan. 19, 2013 See more In-depth