The Best Baby Formulas for Your Child’s Needs
June 2, 2021
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, the nutrient-rich contents of breast milk 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 because she’s undergoing medical treatment. Sometimes baby just can’t nail a good latch. 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 to find the best formula to offer your little one.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- No scoop means less risk for mess.
- 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 you’re 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Some parents have found that baby formula has been harder to come by during COVID times. This is mostly due to shoppers panic-purchasing and stockpiling baby formula (just like toilet paper) as pandemic fears spiked on and off. Restocking plans were simply unprepared for this sudden increase in demand, leaving shelves empty from time to time. For parents who rely on formula to feed their babies, it’s understandably stressful. But thankfully, manufacturers and retailers have adjusted production and restocks to account for this, and empty shelves should be less likely at this point.
How to find baby formula when your store is out
If you do run out of formula and can’t find it at your regular stores, call around to pharmacies and baby supply stores in your area. These places aren’t often top-of-mind for shoppers on the hunt for formula and they may still have some in stock. You can also ask your pediatrician if they have any samples to tide you over. If you typically receive and use WIC or SNAP benefits to purchase formula and don’t see your WIC products, contact your local food bank or women’s shelter.
If you can’t find your typical brand and type of baby formula, consider switching to whatever is available. While changing brands and types of formula can be okay for some babies, others might experience discomfort as they adjust to the new formula. If you’re concerned that baby won’t handle a new formula well, or if baby has special dietary needs and you’re not sure what the next best formula for them would be, contact your pediatrician. Don’t feed baby cow’s milk or watered down formula, or try to make your own homemade version as a replacement, as that could be dangerous for baby’s health.
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.
The fact is, there is no single option that’s the best formula for all babies. So how do you know what the best baby formula for your child will be? Start with your pediatrician. You’ll be able to talk about any allergies or dietary issues you might have, along with any nutritional concerns or worries about allergies for baby. From there, your pediatrician can give you guidance to help you choose the best formula for your little one.
Ultimately, choosing the best formula for baby is about paying close attention to how your child’s body responds to the formula you try. It’s also essential that you purchase your baby formula safely: Make sure that it’s not expired and that it’s sealed correctly and the packaging is in good condition. If you try a formula and baby doesn’t seem to be reacting well, contact your pediatrician to discuss what to do.
Here are a few common situations where baby may have specific needs—and how to choose 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 their 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, the baby formula options open up more. Below are some of the best baby formulas for babies born prematurely or at a low birth weight.
Baby formulas to try:
Similac NeoSure provides 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.
Buy it: Similac NeoSure Formula for Premature Babies, $20 for a 13.1 oz can, Walmart.com
Enfamil NeuroPro EnfaCare also contains DHA, but it’s incorporated through a unique blend of DHA and MFGM, formulated to support cognitive development and meet the special nutritional needs of babies born prematurely or at a low birth weight.
Buy it: Enfamil NeuroPro EnfaCare, $19 for a 12.8 oz can, Enfamil.com
Best organic baby formula
Organic baby formula is sourced from cows raised on an organic diet (no pesticides, no antibiotics) and uses 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. Depending on your needs and preferences, these brands may be among the best organic baby formulas.
Baby formulas to try:
Happy Baby offers a certified organic baby formula that’s iron-fortified and includes calcium, vitamin D, DHA, ARA, folic acid and choline, plus prebiotics to mimic breast milk. It has no gluten or corn syrup, but it does contain palm oil.
Buy it: Happy Baby Organics Infant Formula with Iron, $30 for a 21 oz can, Walmart.com
Like Happy Baby’s offering, Earth’s Best iron-fortified organic baby formula contains DHA and ARA, as well as prebiotics for boosted immunity and lutein for healthy eye development. There’s no added corn syrup solids, although it does contain hexane-extracted ingredients.
Buy it: Earth’s Best Organic Dairy Infant Formula, $40 for a 32 oz can, Amazon.com
Whatever you decide, it’s important to remember that the best organic baby formula is one that answers the needs of your child—so if you can’t find an option that checks all the boxes (for example, baby needs hydrolyzed proteins for digestive issues), then it’s better to go with the formulation baby requires, whether it’s organic or not, Arévalo says. The best formula for baby is one that fulfills all of their nutritional and dietary needs.
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.
Baby formula to try:
Similac offers a baby formula specifically for supplementation, which 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.
Buy it: Similac for Supplementation Infant Formula, $28 for a 23.2 oz can, BuyBuyBaby.com
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 baby formula for gassy babies
“All babies have gas,” Young says. “Babies eventually learn how to eliminate it themselves.” So before searching for the best formula for gassy babies, make sure your child isn’t excessively gassy for other reasons. Feed baby upright, always with their head above their 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 the feeding, 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.
Baby formulas to try:
This Sensitivity formula from Earth’s Best is a low-lactose, partially hydrolyzed option featuring broken-down proteins for easy digestion and to help ease gas, crying and fussiness. It includes DHA and ARA, iron, prebiotics and lutein for healthy development, and is a certified organic baby formula, a selling point for some parents.
Buy it: Earth’s Best Organic Sensitivity Infant Formula with Iron, $28 for a 23.2 oz can, Amazon.com
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 they’re putting in a lot of effort, it’s completely normal. However, if they’re straining for more than 10 minutes, or if they’re pooping noticeably less than before, your little one 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 them on their back and “bicycling” their legs, giving them a warm bath or adding a dash of apple or pear juice in their 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.
Baby formula to try:
All kids’ needs are different, of course, but Enfamil Reguline is among the best baby formulas 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.”
Buy it: Enfamil Reguline Infant Formula, $18 for a 12.4 oz can, Enfamil.com
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 their 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 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, they 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, a 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.
Baby formulas to try:
Among the best baby formulas for colic, Gerber Good Start SoothePro 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, as well as a prebiotic called Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMO), which research has shown to support digestive health and the developing immune system.
Buy it: Gerber Good Start SoothePro Powder Infant Formula, $25 for a 19.4 oz can, Walmart.com
If SoothePro doesn’t work, you may need to try formulas with thoroughly hydrolyzed proteins, such as Similac Alimentum. 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.
Buy it: Similac Alimentum Infant Formula, $40 for a 19.8 oz can, BuyBuyBaby.com
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.
About the experts:
Kimberly Gronsman Lee, MD, is board-certified in pediatrics and neonatal-perinatal medicine and is an associate professor of pediatrics at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Her clinical interests lie in breastfeeding and feeding difficulties. She earned her medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine and her master’s degree from Harvard School of Public Health.
Bridget Young, PhD, CLC, is a breast milk researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Anschutz and has a PhD in perinatal and pediatric nutrition from Cornell University. She’s also a certified lactation consultant and the founder of BabyFormulaExpert.com.
Sandra Arévalo, MPH, RDN, CDN, CDE, is a registered dietician nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also serves as director of nutrition services and community outreach at Community Pediatrics, a program of Montefiore and The Children’s Health Fund.
Steven Abrams, MD, is chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and professor of pediatrics at University of Texas Dell Medical School in Austin. He earned his medical degree from Ohio State University and completed a fellowship in neonatal-perinatal medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. From 2012 to 2015, he served as a member of the Dietary Advisory Committee of the US Department of Agriculture.
Melanie Greifer, MD, is a pediatric gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City and a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She earned her medical degree from SUNY Brooklyn in 1999 and completed her fellowship in gastroenterology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in 2005.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.