Commercial infant or baby formula is the only safe alternative to breastmilk for the first 12 months of your baby’s life.
What is infant or baby formula?
Most baby formula is made from cow’s milk that has been modified so that it suits your baby’s nutritional needs. But it’s not the same as cow’s milk.
Why babies need formula rather than cow’s milk
All baby formula has added vitamins, minerals and fats that babies need, which they can’t get from straight cow’s milk. Also, babies can’t digest cow’s milk as completely or easily as breastmilk or formula. The protein level in cow’s milk is too high for babies, so some is taken out for infant formula.
For these reasons, you shouldn’t give cow’s milk to your baby as the main milk drink until your baby is over 12 months old.
Babies under 12 months of age should not have:
- normal cow’s milk
- skim, evaporated, powdered or sweetened condensed milk
- dairy alternatives like soy, rice, almond or coconut milk.
For most healthy full-term babies, breastmilk or cow’s milk-based baby formulas are recommended until 12 months of age. If you’re thinking of feeding your baby something other than breastmilk or cow’s milk-based formula, talk to your paediatrician, GP or child and family health nurse first.
Which baby formula is best?
Every baby formula you can buy in Australia meets strict Australian Standards.
Most cow’s milk-based
baby formulas are of similar quality and nutritional value and are suitable for most babies.
A brand might be more expensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s better for your baby. And a hospital’s use of a particular brand of infant formula doesn’t mean that the brand is the ‘best’.
Some more expensive baby formulas have special extra ingredients – for example, LCPs. You pay more for this kind of baby formula. On the whole, though, there’s not a lot of evidence that these formulas are better for your baby.
You can buy baby formula in powder form or ‘ready to drink’ form. Either is fine for your baby, but ‘ready to drink’ is usually more expensive because it’s more convenient.
Special baby formulas
For babies under 12 months of age, cow’s milk-based baby formula is recommended over formulas made from soybeans, goat’s milk or modified lactose formula.
But babies who can’t have cow’s milk-based formula might need special formula. Special baby formulas should be used only under medical supervision.
Soy-based baby formula
Some babies can’t have dairy-based products because of allergies or intolerances. Or you might not want to use regular baby formula because of cultural, religious or other beliefs.
Soy-based formula will give your child all the nutrients she needs. But if you’re thinking of switching to a soy formula, talk to a doctor or dietitian first.
Consuming high levels of soy can have potential risks for babies. For example, the phytoestrogen compounds in soy formula might affect babies’ growing neuro-endocrine systems and immune systems. But there’s no compelling research to say what effects these have on babies.
Soy-based formulas don’t prevent or reduce the risk of your child developing allergies.
Hydrolysed baby formula
Hydrolysed formula includes partially hydrolysed formula (which is also called hypoallergenic formula) and extensively hydrolysed formula.
The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) infant feeding guidelines don’t recommend hydrolysed infant formula for the prevention of allergic disease – even if you have a family history 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.
Homemade baby formula
Homemade baby ‘formula’ that uses bone broth and other ingredients isn’t a suitable alternative to breastmilk or shop-bought cow’s milk-based baby formula. Homemade baby formula can contain many ingredients that aren’t safe for your baby.
Special additives in baby formula
Some baby formulas have extra ingredients added to them, to make them more like breastmilk. But this doesn’t necessarily mean those ingredients will work in the same way as breastmilk in your baby’s body. And these formulas might be more expensive than other formulas.
Here are some common extra ingredients added to baby formula, with information about whether they’re likely to do your baby any extra good:
- LCPs: these are important for brain and nerve development. There’s no clear evidence that babies can (or can’t) absorb ingredients like LCPs when they’re added to formula. Formula with added LCPs might be helpful for formula-fed premature babies’ brain development.
Betacarotene: this is a source of vitamin A and anti-oxidants. Most formulas already have added vitamin A and anti-oxidants. There’s no real evidence that betacarotene formulas are better for your baby.
Prebiotics and probiotics: these can help formula-fed babies grow healthy bacteria in their bowels. The bacteria might help your baby have softer poo and less nappy rash. It might also help reduce the chance of gastroenteritis.
Changing baby formula
Once you’ve settled on a baby formula for your baby, it’s better not to change formula too often. The taste will vary slightly and it might upset your baby’s feeding routine.
If you do decide to change baby formula, read the directions on the new formula label carefully. Different formulas have different-sized scoops and are made up in different ways.
You don’t need to change to a ‘follow-on formula’ when your baby reaches six months. You might see advertisements about the benefits of follow-on baby formulas, but these have no advantages over starter or first formulas. You can use starter or first formulas from birth to 12 months.