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Comparison of Infant Formulas

By Beth Greenwood ; Updated June 13, 2017

Breast-feeding is best, says the American Academy of Pediatrics, but sometimes there’s a problem. Mom might not have enough milk, for example, or your baby could be adopted at birth. Infant formulas can be based on cow’s milk or soy, or they may be hydrolyzed or special formulas. Each has distinct benefits and may also have some disadvantages.

Meeting the Guidelines

All infant formulas in the United States must meet the guidelines of the Infant Formula Act, according to registered dietitian Angela R. Maynor. Among these are established minimum levels of 29 nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, proteins, fat and carbohydrates. Infant formulas might vary in their exact composition, however. Protein could be 8 percent to 12 percent of calories; carbohydrates, 41 percent to 43 percent; and fats, 43 percent to 49 percent. In addition, each manufacturer might have a slightly different formula, such as a product with extra vitamin D, different kinds of carbohydrates, more calcium or calories.

Cow's Milk Formulas

Cow’s milk formulas are the most common, according to HealthyChildren.org. Because cow’s milk and human milk are not exactly the same, however, cow’s milk formulas are modified to better meet an infant’s nutritional needs. Forty-two percent of the calories in breast milk come from milk sugars in the form of lactose and galactose, so formula manufacturers usually add lactose to cow's milk formula. The butterfat in cow’s milk is typically replaced with vegetable oils and other fats, as your baby can digest these fats more easily than dairy butterfat. Cow’s milk is also lower in iron, so cow’s milk formula typically contains added iron and may also contain additional fatty acids.

When Baby Is Allergic

Hydrolyzed formulas are used for babies who have a higher risk of allergies based on family history. Sometimes called hypoallergenic formulas, these are usually more costly than other types of formula. Maynor reports these formulas have more protein per serving. Hydrolyzed formulas might also be known as predigested formulas because their proteins have been broken down for easier digestion. HealthyChildren.org notes that it is particularly important for babies who might be more allergy-prone to be breast-fed for at least six months, if possible.

Milk From the Soybean

Occasionally babies might be allergic to cow’s milk proteins or lactose-intolerant, although the latter is rare. In those cases, soy milk offers the best alternative. Soy-based formula is a mixture of soy protein and a carbohydrate such as glucose or sucrose. Unfortunately, HealthyChildren.org notes approximately half of the babies who are truly allergic to cow’s milk are also allergic to soy. Some soy formulas might also contain cow's milk proteins or rice starch, according to Maynor, so read labels carefully. Soy formula is the best choice for an infant with galactosemia, the inability to digest the milk sugar galactose.

For Special Needs

Specialized formulas could have a variety of different ingredients, as they are manufactured for babies who have specific medical problems or diseases, such as metabolic disorders or an inability to digest some types of sugars. Premature babies might also need a specialized formula that provides extra calories. Some formulas might also contain probiotics or prebiotics to help with digestion and promote a healthy digestive system. If your baby is on a specialized formula, he might need different amounts than most babies, or you might need to follow specific preparation routines. Consult your doctor for instructions.

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