Choosing a Formula for Your Baby

Four Baby Bottles
Photo © Scott & Zoe/Getty Images

If you are trying to choose an infant formula for your baby, you might feel overwhelmed at the options available. It is not as simple as simply walking into the store and picking up a can of formula. You may find yourself overwhelmed with the options. Here's a breakdown of the most common types and when you might choose one over the other for your baby.

Cow's Milk Based Infant Formulas

This is the most common type of formula made.

About 80% of the formula sold will be based on a cow's milk protein. The milk proteins are treated to help them be broken down by your baby's digestive tract. These formulas also have iron added to them, which is recommend by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to help prevent iron deficiency anemia in child under one. You may also notice that many of these formulas also have docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) added to them. These additives are thought to be beneficial when it comes to the development of your baby's brain and eyes, but these fatty acids are still being researched.

Soy Based Infant Formulas

Some babies do not tolerate the cow's milk based formulas very well. This may be a temporary problem or be something that is ongoing. AAP believes that the use of soy formula should be limited to babies who truly have a special need for it. An example of this would be a baby who had the genetic disease galactosemia.

They note that some vegetarian families try to use soy formula to avoid animal products, but this may not be the best option for them. Soy formulas do not reduce the amount of gas or spitting up when looking at studies, so this should not be what a parent switches to if their baby is having digestive issues.

(Baby bottles have also been implicated in the digestive upset, so your choice there matters too.)

Hydrolyzed Infant Formulas

You may hear that there are predigested formulas available, what that means is that the cow's milk proteins have been broken down into smaller proteins to make them easier to digest for babies. If you have a baby who is at a higher risk of developing allergies or who has shown symptoms of allergies to other formulas, your pediatrician may recommend a hydrolyzed formula. These formulas are also more costly.

Specialized Infant Formulas

These formulas are really expensive and may even be prescription only. They are designed for babies who have very specific diseases. You may not be able to locate these easily and may even have to special order through a pharmacy or your pediatrician.

A Note About Iron

As I said most of the infant formulas are fortified with iron. You will also find low iron formulas. Breast milk, which is what infant formula tries to mimic, has very little iron.

A low iron formula mimics that, however, unlike breast milk, where nearly 100% of the iron is absorbed by the baby, the iron in formula is not absorbed as well. So even though an iron fortified formula has more iron, the baby absorbs less. This means that you should probably not choose a low iron formula without a good reason.

What Else Goes Into Your Decision on Which Formula to Buy

There are a lot of things that might go into your decision as to which formula you buy. This probably includes:

  • Availability: Can you easily find the formula where you normally shop?
  • Usability: Does your baby tolerate the formula well? Is baby growing appropriately?
  • Affordability: Let's face it, formula is expensive. Some costs less than others, but is there really a difference in quality? Can you get coupons readily for the brand you have chosen?


Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2009.

Formula 101. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). February 27, 2015.

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