How to Choose the Right Baby Formula

As a result of well-meaning attempts to encourage breastfeeding, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start when you decide to introduce formula to your baby.

Take a walk down the baby aisle of any chemist or supermarket and you’re bombarded with options.

Add to that the abundance of misinformation about the risks of formula and it’s little wonder many new mums are left confused and anxious.

It’s important to remember, that even though breastfeeding is recommended, if you’re unable to do so or choose not to, rest assured that you can safely meet your baby’s nutritional needs by choosing the right infant formula.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the most commonly asked questions about choosing the right baby formula and how to get started.

What exactly is infant formula?

According to Dietician Kirsty Le Ray most commercial infant formulas are cow’s milk based, with the amounts of carbohydrate, fat, and protein, modified to resemble that of breast milk.

Most formulas contain added minerals (including iron) and vitamins, to provide the essential nutrients needed for growth and development, says Le Ray.

Infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk. Plain cow/goat/sheep/soy/rice milk, homemade formula, or toddler milk, should not be used as the main milk drink in infants under 12 months of age, as they don’t have the right balance of nutrients.

How do I choose an infant formula?

Before starting on a formula, it’s a good idea to talk to your health professional for information and help with preparing, storing and using formulas correctly. Read our Formula Preparation Guide here.

Most infant formulas are cow’s milk based and are suitable for infants, unless they can’t be taken for medical, cultural or religious reasons, says Le Ray.

If a food allergy is suspected or there is a family history of allergies, speak to your health professional before introducing an infant formula.

If your baby can’t have cow’s milk-based formula, they may need a special formula that is to only be used under medical supervision.

Special baby formulas include:

1. Soy-based baby formula

If your baby can’t have dairy-based products, soy-based formula will give your baby all the nutrients they need. Talk to a dietician or doctor first to discuss the potential risks of soy consumption for growing babies.

2. Hydrolysed baby formula

Hydrolysed formula isn’t recommended for the prevention of allergies, but for babies with a proven cow’s milk allergy or cow’s milk protein intolerance (who aren’t breastfed), the Royal Australian College of Physicians (RACP) recommends the use of extensively hydrolysed infant formula.

3. Goat’s milk-based formula

Goat’s milk formula is produced to the same nutritional value as cow’s milk-based. However, the proteins are very similar, so if your baby has an allergy to cow’s milk, they may also react to goat’s milk formula.

How do I determine if my baby has an allergy?

Symptoms associated with food allergy can include eczema, colic, reflux, chronic diarrhoea, and failure to thrive.

Eczema can often be an early indicator that an infant will go on to develop a food allergy, says Le Ray.

Symptoms of a food allergy reaction include hives, swelling around the mouth, and vomiting, occurring soon after a food is eaten.

Common food allergens include egg, cow’s milk, peanut, tree nuts, sesame seeds, soy, fish, shellfish, and wheat.

Severe food allergy reactions (anaphylaxis) can be life threatening, and are a medical emergency, so if you suspect your baby might have an allergy, it’s important to talk to your health professional about allergy testing.

Is there a difference between brands?

There is not a great deal of difference between brands in terms of energy, protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals; so the choice generally comes down to cost and availability.

If switching from one brand to another, remember to check the number of scoops required, and whether the scoop to water ratio is different.

It’s better not to change formula brands too often; the taste will vary slightly and it might upset your baby’s feeding routine. Often when a formula is started or changed, an infant can become unsettled or develop stool changes, but if symptoms persist, speak to your health professional. Also, read How to Identify and Treat the Symptoms of Baby Constipation.

What about ‘Gold’ varieties?

Gold varieties contain certain fatty acids that play an important role in the development of the brain, eyes, and other body parts.

These fatty acids are found in breast milk, and the body is also able to produce these.

They are not in regular formula, and the evidence for benefits to vision, brain and physical growth, is inconclusive. For more information about what the ‘gold’ means in formula, read this.

Is it important to choose a formula for the right age group?

It is best to follow the use of each formula according to the instructions on the can, including using the age appropriate formula for your infant, unless specified otherwise by your health professional, says Le Ray.

‘Starter’, ‘newborn’ and ‘step 1’ formulas are for birth to 1 year of age.

Formulas that can be used from 6 months to 1 year of age are called ‘step 2’, ‘progress’, or ‘follow-on’.

As infants older than 6 months have different nutritional needs, these formulas contain more protein and iron, and different amounts of vitamins and minerals, compared to early infant formulas.

For more guidelines on infant formula, click here.

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