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Joanne Chen
Contributing Writer

Best Baby Formulas For Your Child’s Needs

The 411 on baby formula and how to choose the best option for baby’s specific needs.

In an ideal world, it would be a snap for every mom to breastfeed until baby’s first birthday and beyond, just as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. In an ideal world, moms would also have a posse of helpers to fetch groceries, clean the house and do chores we otherwise don’t have time for. Money would grow on trees, our breasts would spout milk like fountains and we wouldn’t need more than two hours of sleep, ever.

But in the real world, that just isn’t the case. At least, not all the time. Yes, breast is best—its nutrient-rich contents provide babies with exactly what they need when they need it. But sometimes that breast is exhausted, achy, ungenerous or out of commission because mom works at an office that’s decidedly not breast pump-friendly, or maybe she’s undergoing medical treatment. Sometimes mom needs a helping hand or, heaven forbid, a break, and at the end of the day, sometimes baby simply isn’t able to have breast milk. And that’s all okay, because there’s such a thing as baby formula.

Baby formula is engineered to resemble the nutritional composition of breast milk, which contains an assorted array of proteins (typically from cow’s milk but also sometimes soy or even goat’s milk), carbohydrates, fats and vitamins. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strictly regulates these core components. Special formulas that feature bonus ingredients, such as probiotics or DHA, are touted as offering particular benefits for baby, but experts say it’s largely just marketing. “Take it with a hefty grain of salt,” says Kimberly Gronsman Lee, MD, associate professor of pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. “Any infant formula that’s sold in the US should be FDA regulated and acceptable in terms of nutrition.” Still, baby formula does come in different consistencies, and the small variations in the recipe might make a difference in special circumstances, says Bridget Young, PhD, a breast milk researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Anschutz and founder of BabyFormulaExpert.com. So what are the different types available, and when it comes down to it, is there such a thing as a best baby formula? Here’s what you need to know.

In this article:
Types of baby formula
Best baby formulas

Types of Baby Formula

While you might have a dizzying array of brands of baby formula—and multiple formula options from those brands—to choose from, there are only three overall types of baby formula: powder, liquid concentrate and ready-to-feed. Naturally, there are pros and cons to each, and many moms have a variety on hand so they can use whatever suits the situation.

Powder baby formula
Typically sold in canisters or cartons, powder baby formula needs to be mixed with a specific amount of water before it can be given to baby.
The pros:

  • It’s the least expensive of the three options.
  • The powder lasts a long time (check the date stamp), as long as you don’t mix it with water.

The cons:

  • It’s not convenient for travel, given the potential for mess.
  • You’ve got to deal with the scoop, meaning more pieces to fiddle with (and wash).
  • Some brands offer single-use travel packets, but they’re, of course, more expensive.
  • You need to make sure your drinking water is safe.
  • It’s not recommended for premature newborns whose immune systems are still forming, since powder food isn’t sterile.

Liquid concentrate baby formula
This option also requires some mixing and shaking with water, but because it’s liquid, you skip the scoop.
The pros:

  • No scoop means less risk for mess.

The cons:

  • It’s more expensive than powder.
  • Once opened, you need to refrigerate and use the entire container within 48 hours, which might not be realistic if your using it as a supplement to breastfeeding.

Ready-to-feed baby formula
The name says it all: This type of baby formula is premixed; just open and feed to baby. Choose from single-serve bottles or larger volumes.
The pros:

  • It’s super-easy to use.
  • There’s little danger of contamination and no chance of any errors in preparation.
  • You don’t need to refrigerate unopened bottles.

The cons:

  • It’s expensive (according to an informal 2016 Consumer Reports survey of stores around the country, Enfamil Premium Ready to Use formula costs 27 to 35 percent more than its powder version).
  • Once the ready-to-feed bottle is cracked open, it needs to be finished or discarded after 48 hours of refrigeration.

Best Baby Formula for Your Child’s Needs

For most healthy babies, whatever formula in the baby-care package that your hospital sends you home with will probably suit just fine, says Sandra Arévalo, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. These are typically made with cow’s-milk protein (which is a combination of 80 percent casein protein and 20 percent whey protein) plus whey protein concentrate, so the protein ratio more closely resembles breast milk (which is 60 percent whey and 40 percent casein). But there are certainly times you may want to try something different. Here are a few common situations where baby may have specific needs—and the best baby formula to meet them.

Best baby formula for newborns

Breast milk is especially important for brand-new babies. As Steven Abrams, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Dell Medical School in Austin, explains, breast milk ingredients are dynamic: They constantly change to fulfill a growing infant’s needs, from bolstering her developing immune system to building muscle strength. Given that baby formula is a set formulation, it’s hard for it to be truly complete. Still, in a pinch, most standard formulas will work for healthy newborns, Arévalo says. The exception is very premature babies (born at 28 to 32 weeks), who would receive specific feeding recommendations from the NICU that could potentially include donor breast milk if the mom can’t supply it. Once baby arrives home, the doctor will recommend the appropriate feeding regimen. For older preemies (born at 32 to 37 weeks) or underweight term babies, you can try:

Photo: Courtesy of Similac; Courtesy of Enfamil

Similac NeoSure Formula for Premature Babies and Enfamil EnfaCare Infant Formula
Both provide more protein, vitamins, minerals and calories than typical formulas, plus DHA and ARA (omega-3 fatty acids that support brain and eye health), which may be helpful for newborns. Each baby formula has similar nutrients arranged in a slightly different formulation.

Best baby formula for breastfed babies

If you’re supplementing your breast milk with formula, there’s no need to find a special baby formula, Young says. Still, you’ll find some formulas designed especially for supplementing that offer a little something extra, such as:

Photo: Courtesy of Similac

Similac for Supplementation Infant Formula
This baby formula has 10 percent more prebiotics than the brand’s basic Similac Advance formula. Prebiotics help soften baby’s poop, which can be helpful since many breastfeeding moms are concerned about harder stools when supplementing with baby formula.

Most important, though, the best baby formula for breastfed babies is less about the product and more about the protocol. Every time you don’t feed baby from the breast, your milk ducts get the signal that there’s less demand and produce less milk. To avoid a dip in your supply, pump when you can to make up for the missed breastfeeding session.

Best organic baby formula

Organic baby formula is sourced from cows raised on an organic diet (no pesticides, no antibiotics) and use naturally instead of petroleum-derived vitamins. Remember, though, just because it’s organic doesn’t mean it’s free from other controversial ingredients, such as corn syrup, palm oil or hexane-sourced DHA and ARA. (Hexane, a byproduct of petroleum refining, doesn’t sit well with some parents, though the FDA has deemed its use as a processing agent safe.) From a strictly scientific standpoint, it’s not certain that organic baby formula is better than conventional. What is certain is that it’s pricier and that “there’s no difference nutrition-wise,” Arévalo says. According to Consumer Reports, the going rate for a pack of 48 2-ounce Similac Advance Organic Ready-to-Feed Formula is about $64, while a non-organic package of the same size costs about $40. Still, if your wallet can handle it, and going organic gives you peace of mind, then give it a try, Young says. There’s no perfect infant food other than breast milk, so even with organic baby formula, you need to parse out your priorities. Depending on your needs and preferences, these brands may be among the best organic baby formulas:

Photo: Courtesy of Plum Organics

Plum Organics Infant Formula
If corn syrup is a concern, this baby formula uses only lactose as its carbohydrate. It does, however, contain hexane-sourced omega-3s.

Photo: Courtesy of The Honest Company

The Honest Company Organic Infant Formula
In contrast, this baby formula doesn’t contain any hexane-extracted ingredients, but it does contain glucose syrup.

Photo: Courtesy of Similac

Similac Organic Baby Formula
It doesn’t contain palm oil but does taste sweeter, thanks to the organic sugar, which unsettles some parents.

Whatever you decide, it’s important to remember that if you can’t find an organic brand that answers the needs of baby (such as hydrolyzed proteins for digestive issues), then it’s better to go with the formulation baby needs, whether it’s organic or not, Arévalo says.

Best baby formula for colic

A colicky baby is defined as an otherwise healthy baby under 3 months of age who cries for more than three hours a day, more than three days a week, for more than three weeks in a row for no apparent reason, much to the distress of caregivers. Doctors aren’t sure what causes colic, but it’s natural to wonder whether her baby formula has something to do with it. (And yes, gastrointestinal issues could be a part of the problem.)

But before you switch your baby formula, “give it at least a week or two,” Arévalo says, and see if any tips and tricks for relieving a gassy or constipated baby (below) help. However, if besides crying, your child vomits, coughs, wheezes, has trouble breathing, breaks out in a rash or red spots or has diarrhea, itchy, watery or swollen eyes, he might be sensitive to the protein in formula, or (in the case of the more severe symptoms) an all-out milk-protein allergy, says Melanie Greifer, MD, pediatric gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. If digestive troubles are the cause for baby’s extreme fussiness, talk to your pediatrician about trying partially hydrolyzed proteins, Young says.

Photo: Courtesy of Gerber

Gerber Good Start Soothe Powder Infant Formula
Among the best baby formulas for colic, it contains 100 percent whey protein partially broken down, which, as we mentioned, is easier to digest than casein proteins. Soothe also contains L. reuteri, the only probiotic that helps colic, according to some studies.

Similac Alimentum Infant Formula
If Soothe doesn’t work, you may need to try formulas with thoroughly hydrolyzed proteins, such as this one. The proteins in this formula are broken down into even smaller units so baby’s immune system won’t revolt against them. Like all the products offered by the brand, Alimentum contains no palm oil, an ingredient thought to stiffen stools in some infants and reduce the amount of calcium and oils absorbed into baby’s system.

A switch to a fully hydrolyzed option shouldn’t be taken lightly, though, since these types of baby formula tend to taste bitter and have an unpleasant odor, Young says. To merit the change, baby should be diagnosed as having a full-on milk protein allergy. Keep in mind that switching to a soy-based formula wouldn’t necessarily help, because as many as half of all infants allergic to milk protein are also allergic to soy protein.

Best baby formula for gas

“All babies have gas,” Young says. “Babies eventually learn how to eliminate it themselves.” So before searching for the best baby formula for gas, make sure baby isn’t excessively gassy for other reasons. Feed baby upright, always with her head above her tummy. Choose a bottle nipple that flows more slowly, and burp your baby more frequently. If you’re using powder formula, let the bubbles settle before feeding baby, or try using a liquid concentrate or ready-to-feed formulation. Angled and vented bottles can help reduce gas too.

In rare cases, gassy babies may be sensitive to lactose, a sugar naturally found in cow’s milk (and therefore most baby formulas). Lactose is also in breast milk, but breast milk contains other compounds that help baby digest it, Young says. So the best baby formula for gas may be a partially hydrolyzed option with no or low lactose, such as:

Photo: Courtesy of Similac

Similac Total Comfort Non-GMO Infant Formula
This low-lactose, partially hydrolyzed option features broken-down proteins for easy digestion and is designed for babies with a mild lactose sensitivity. Like other products from Similac, Total Comfort is a non-GMO formula, a selling point for some parents.

Even a “no lactose” baby formula typically contains a smidge of lactose, so if your child is completely intolerant, then talk to your pediatrician about a soy formula, Greifer says. However, the AAP doesn’t recommend a soy formula for babies weighing less than 1,800 grams (3.96 pounds).

Best baby formula for constipation

It’s not easy to poop lying down, so if baby looks like he’s putting in a lot of effort, it’s completely normal. However, if he’s straining for more than 10 minutes, or if he’s pooping noticeably less than before, he might be constipated. Other clues include fussiness, hard stools and unusually frequent spit-up. Before you switch formulas, try to help baby poop by laying him on his back and “bicycling” his legs, giving him a warm bath or adding a dash of apple or pear juice in his formula (you can use as much as 1 ounce a day for each month of life; so a two-month-old shouldn’t have more than 2 ounces total in a day). Contrary to popular belief, iron-fortified baby formula doesn’t cause constipation (and, in fact, is helpful to baby’s growth), according to the AAP.

Photo: Courtesy of Enfamil

Enfamil Reguline Infant Formula
All kids’ needs are different, of course, but this is among the best baby formula for constipation, according to many online reviewers. It offers up partially hydrolyzed protein (so it’s easier to digest) as well as two prebiotics (ingredients that feed the good bacteria that’s thought to ease tummy troubles). The formula also keeps the corn syrup content low. Satisfied parents have used two words in reviewing the product: “life saver.”

Best inexpensive baby formula

The FDA requires that generic baby formula brands maintain the same core makeup (protein, carbohydrates and fats) as the brand-name formulas. But the proof of whether they’re a true bargain is in the ingredient label, where the product makers get specific about the types of nutrients used. So if you don’t see that label on the packaging or the product’s website, then skip it. “You would be very hard pressed to feel confident choosing one of these formulas,” Young says in her exhaustively thorough blog post. The best cheap baby formula is impossible to single out because there is as much variation in generic formulas as there are in name brands, but here’s one to try, if you’re looking for a generic version of Gerber Good Start:

Photo: Courtesy of Comforts for Baby

Kroger Comforts for Baby Tender Formula
Its orange, green and blue packaging begs to be compared to Gerber Good Start Gentle. As Young notes in her blog post on generic baby formula, Tender contains essentially the same ingredients, but actually has more lactose and less corn maltodextrin (corn syrup). In other words: Score! “I love generics,” she writes—as long as the ingredients label tells you it’s an equal or, in this case, more desirable, product. The savings here: more than $10 for a 23.2-ounce container.

Published August 2017

PHOTO: Getty Images