What Is Cow Milk Formula?

Get the facts about this popular alternative to breastmilk

woman scooping baby formula into bottle
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Cow milk formula is one of the most commonly used formulas for infants. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends this type of iron-fortified formula if breastfeeding is not an option.

It's created from the proteins of cow's milk. The protein is then altered so it's easier to digest for babies. (Until children reach age 1, their body can't handle the high levels of protein, sodium and potassium in cow's milk, according to the AAP.) 

Cow milk formula is most similar to breast milk and is often touted for its good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. You can buy it ready-made or in powder form that needs to be mixed with water. (See Water Guidelines for Baby Formula.)

Though the majority of babies thrive on this type of formula, some infants will do better on a different type. If your baby spits up one or two times from this formula, however, don't automatically switch to an alternative like soy infant formula, say experts. Instead, talk to your pediatrician. Spitting up may not mean your child can't tolerate cow milk formula.

Symptoms of an Allergy to Cow's Milk

About two to three percent of babies do have a cow's milk allergy, which occurs when the infant's immune system reacts poorly to the proteins in cow's milk. It can develop in breastfed as well as formula-fed infants and many children will outgrow the allergy.

Symptoms of a milk allergy in infants include:

  • Frequent spitting up
  • Vomiting
  • Colic-like symptoms, which may include excessive crying and irritability after feedings
  • Diarrhea
  • Blood in stool
  • Lack of weight gain
  • Hives
  • A scaly skin rash
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Watery eyes and stuffy nose
  • Trouble breathing and swelling of mouth and throat
  • Anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction

It's also important to note that a milk allergy is not the same thing as milk tolerance or lactose intolerance, which occurs when a breastfed or formula-fed baby can't digest the sugar in cow's milk (lactose).

Alternatives to Cow Milk Formula

If your baby can't tolerate the proteins in cow's milk, there are plenty of options. 

Where to Go From Here

Shopping for baby formula is never easy. Of course, your first step should be to talk to your pediatrician about the right options for your infant. These articles will also help you make an informed decision:

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