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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Choosing the best source of nourishment for your baby is a monumental decision – one that often entails some lengthy deliberation. If you've already settled on infant formula as your preferred method of feeding, you have a plethora of nutritionally complete options to consider.
But where do you start? Is regular cow's milk formula a safe bet? Or should you opt for soy infant formula? And what is hydrolyzed formula, anyway? Whether you've decided to formula-feed exclusively or simply want to supplement breastfeeding with the occasional bottle, selecting the best infant formula is no easy task.
The BestReviews team is passionate about creating shopping guides that help consumers find the best products on the market. We cover all the bases, from independent lab testing to consumer product ratings, doing the work so that you don't have to. And you won't find any free manufacturer “samples” here, either – all of our reviews are 100% unbiased. Our detailed guide below is packed with all the information you need to find the best infant formula, and our product matrix above features the top five formulas currently available. Don't forget to check them out before you leave!
While most people agree that breast is best, formula feeding is a perfectly good way of providing your baby with all the healthy nourishment she needs.
Here are some of the benefits that formula feeding offers.
Family members have an increased opportunity to bond with the baby. Nothing quite compares to the intimacy of holding and feeding your baby. With formula feeds, family members get to experience these quietly profound moments as well, giving them a better chance of developing a solid bond during the early stages of life.
It's easy to track how much your baby is actually consuming. Once your little one is done with his bottle, you'll know exactly how much he has eaten – or hasn’t eaten – and you'll easily be able to schedule his next feeding accordingly.
Formula keeps tummies fuller for longer. As formula takes longer to digest, babies tend to need fewer feedings. For many, this means longer naps for baby and a few more precious moments of sleep for parents.
It affords moms a bit of freedom. Not only does formula feeding allow moms to enjoy a guilt-free cup of coffee or glass of wine, but it also makes it easier to eventually go back to work. It may even allow for some semblance of a social life.
Most infant formulas now contain DHA and ARA – the same fatty acids found in breast milk – which have been shown to support brain function and boost both mental and visual development.
The earliest infant formula consisted of wheat flour, cow’s milk, malt flour, and sodium bicarbonate. Thankfully, nutritional science has come a long way since then. Today’s infant formulas boast a balanced nutritional profile in a composition that has been carefully engineered to resemble breast milk.
But every baby is different, and as such, many manufacturers are making a concerted effort to cater to the special digestive needs of all infants. The result? A vast array of tailored formulas … and a bunch of befuddled caregivers.
To take some of the confusion out of identifying the right formula for your baby, we’ve broken down the most common infant formula categories into easily digestible, bite-sized chunks. Below, we’ll cover cow’s milk formula, soy formula, goat’s milk formula, amino acid formula, and other specialized formulas in detail.
Although many parents are hopeful that soy formulas will quell common issues related to cow's milk allergies, this isn't always the case; some infants with milk allergies will have a negative reaction to soy formula as well. Furthermore, many doctors advise against switching infants to soy-based formula except in rare cases of severe lactose intolerance.
Babies need iron for optimal development. Check the label to make sure your chosen infant formula is iron-fortified.
The most common type of formula, cow's milk protein (CMP) formulas contain both whey and casein proteins along with all the essential vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids babies need. While most babies do just fine on regular cow's milk formula, there are several other variations as well.
Lactose-Reduced and Lactose-Free Formula (Colic Formula): In these formulas, some or all of the lactose is removed and corn syrup, sucrose, or other sugars are used as carbohydrate replacements. These formulas are primarily intended for babies who experience temporary lactose intolerance, usually following a gastrointestinal infection. After the gastrointestinal tract has recovered and is once again able to digest lactose, most babies may resume regular formula consumption.
Anti-Regurgitation Formula (Reflux Formula): Anti-regurgitation (AR) formulas are cow's milk formulas which are thickened with different starches, the most common of which include rice, potato, and corn starches. These pre-thickened formulas are less likely to push back up into the esophagus, effectively reducing reflux.
Whey-Dominant Formula (Constipation Formula): Cow's milk formula consists of two proteins: whey protein and casein protein. Of the two, whey is easier to digest, and infant formulas with a higher whey-to-casein ratio may help to prevent or reduce constipation. Most starter/stage-one infant formulas are whey-dominant.
Not all “sensitive” baby formulas are the same. Some are lactose-reduced formulas, while others may be partially hydrolyzed formulas. Lactose-reduced formulas won't be suitable for infants with protein sensitivities, and hydrolyzed formulas may not work for those who have difficulty digesting lactose.
Casein-Dominant Formula (Hungry Baby Formula): As mentioned above, casein protein is digested at a much slower rate than whey protein. Formulas with a higher percentage of casein can help hungry babies who don't have digestive issues feel fuller for longer. However, it's important to note that casein-dominant formulas place more of a demand on the digestive system and generally aren't suitable for babies with sensitive tummies.
Organic Formula: These are cow's milk formulas which contain all-natural ingredients sourced from cows that are fed a strictly organic diet free from harmful additives. Whey and casein ratios are often similar to those found in breast milk (60:40, respectively), although this may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Organic cow's milk formulas also tend to be more expensive than regular cow's milk formulas, but for those committed to an organic lifestyle, the costs are outweighed by the benefits.
Hydrolyzed Protein Formulas (Hypoallergenic Formulas): Last, but certainly not least, in the category of cow's milk formulas are hydrolyzed, or hydrolysate, infant formulas. In these infant formulas, proteins are broken down into pieces which are similar in size to the proteins found in breast milk. Hydrolyzed formulas may be either partially or extensively hydrolyzed.
Partially hydrolyzed formulas have proteins which have been broken up into smaller particles, or “pre digested,” so they're easier for little tummies to handle. Partially hydrolyzed formulas work well for healthy babies who are at risk of developing food allergies or have difficulty digesting intact milk proteins. However, partially hydrolyzed formulas are not considered to be truly hypoallergenic, as these larger pieces may still cause a reaction in infants with existing milk protein allergies.
Extensively hydrolyzed formulas still have cow's milk proteins, but these are broken down to the point where they are rendered unrecognizable as an allergen. Most babies who already have food allergies or are at high risk of developing them tolerate extensively hydrolyzed formulas well.
Most healthy babies thrive on regular cow's milk formula, and many experts recommend this type of formula as a starting point.
Also known as elemental formulas, amino acid formulas are generally only recommended for babies with severe milk protein allergies who are unable to tolerate even extensively hydrolyzed formulas. Here, the chains of amino acids (which form protein) are broken down into separate molecules. As the individual amino acids are unlinked, there are no actual proteins present in these formulas, eliminating the risk of an allergic reaction altogether. Amino acid formulas should only be used under medical advisement.
Goat’s milk formula provides an alternative to regular cow's milk formula that doesn't stray too far from its basic composition. Although some infants with cow's milk sensitivities may find goat’s milk formulas somewhat easier to digest, it's important to note that babies with milk allergies or intolerances are still likely to have an adverse reaction to goat's milk formulas.
If thickened, anti-regurgitation formulas prove ineffective for reflux. Consider trying a 100% whey protein formula as these are digested at a much faster rate.
Still other formulas are available for infants with special nutritional needs, including premature babies, babies with heart disease, and a number of other medical conditions.
These highly specialized formulas are only used in extreme cases and will be prescribed by a doctor if deemed necessary.
Indeed, today's infant formulas are a far cry from the primitive concoctions of bygone years. With a rising awareness of individual nutritional and digestive needs, infant formulas are continuously evolving to provide babies with better nourishment in more easily digestible forms.
Contrary to popular belief, there's no need to heat room-temperature formula.
When purchasing infant formula, you'll have a few different forms to choose from.
These are measured with a provided scoop and mixed with a corresponding amount of water. The “recipe” generally calls for one scoop of powdered formula per two ounces of water, but you should always check preparation instructions to be safe.
Although preparation is more intensive, powdered formulas are by far the most economical option, making them a popular choice for many families.
When mixing formula, always follow the directions. Over-diluted formula won't provide adequate nourishment for healthy growth, and under-diluted formula can quickly lead to constipation and dehydration.
These still need to be diluted with water, usually at a 1:1 ratio. Once opened, the remaining formula may be covered and kept in the refrigerator for up to 48 hours. Many parents find this type of formula somewhat easier to mix that powdered formula. While not as expensive as ready-to-use formulas, concentrated liquid formulas do cost a bit more than powdered varieties.
These are the ultimate “heat-and-eat” solution for busy parents. With no mixing required, there's little room for error. Leftover portions may be covered and refrigerated for up to 48 hours. While ready-to-use infant formulas are fantastically convenient, they're also the most expensive.
Don't be tempted to save leftover formula for later, as the bacteria from saliva can quickly multiply. However, untouched portions may be refrigerated for later use.
With formula prices fluctuating wildly according to the various types, forms, and brands, “typical” infant formula costs are exceedingly difficult to pinpoint.
As a rough guideline, powdered cow's milk infant formulas from leading manufacturers (including lactose-reduced, anti-regurgitation, and whey/casein dominant varieties) cost between $20 and $30 per 22.2-ounce tub.
Extensively hydrolyzed powdered formulas can cost double that for equal volumes, but these formulas are a vital necessity for babies with milk allergies.
And if you're considering a ready-to-use formula, you can expect to pay more for the added convenience.
For an accurate estimate of daily, weekly, or monthly infant formula costs, some manufacturers have online calculators that allow you to input your baby’s data – how many times she eats per day, how many ounces she consumes. This type of calculator can help you get a better idea of exactly how much a specific formula would cost.
Q. Which formulas are best for colic?
A. Since the jury is still out on what exactly causes colic, it can be difficult to find a solution. However, formulas that are specifically designed for easier digestion can be of great help and are certainly worth a try. Many people find that switching to a partially hydrolyzed infant formula works surprisingly well. Lactose-reduced formulas may help reduce painful gas caused by lactose sensitivities, and whey-dominant formulas can be easier to digest.
Although there are a number of options to try if you suspect that your baby's colic is linked to gastrointestinal discomfort, you should always consult a doctor beforehand.
Q. What are the symptoms of cow's milk allergies?
A. Symptoms of milk allergies may manifest immediately following ingestion or a while thereafter. Mild reactions may only include a handful of symptoms, but there's no guarantee that the next episode won't be more severe. Some common immediate symptoms include the following.
Vomiting
Diarrhea
Puffy, itchy eyes
Hives
Rash
Coughing
Wheezing
Impaired breathing
Loss of consciousness
Milk allergy symptoms that may occur hours or even days later include the following.
Rejecting food
Irritability
Bloody or non-bloody diarrhea
Vomiting/gagging
Rash, including eczema
If you suspect that your baby has a milk allergy, it's essential that you discuss formula options and preventative measures with his doctor.
Q. Which infant formulas are most suitable for breastfed babies?
A. Healthy breastfed babies who aren't allergy-prone will likely do well on a regular cow's milk formula. However, partially hydrolyzed formulas with smaller proteins will be much easier for breastfed babies to digest, and for this reason, we recommend partially hydrolyzed formulas above others.