Commercial infant formula is the only safe alternative to breastmilk for the first 12 months of your baby’s life.
What is infant formula?
Most infant formula is made from cow’s milk that has been modified to be as much like breastmilk as possible, so that it suits your baby’s nutritional needs. But it’s not the same as cow’s milk.
Why do babies need infant formula rather than cow’s milk?
All infant 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 babies under 12 months, use only breastmilk or a formula specifically made for babies as their milk drink.
Which infant formula is best?
Every infant formula you can buy in Australia meets strict Australian Standards.
You’ll find a range of infant formulas based on cow’s milk on the supermarket shelves. Most of them are of similar quality and nutritional value and are suitable for most babies. You can use starter or first infant formulas from birth to 12 months.
Some expensive infant formulas have special extra ingredients. You pay more for this kind of infant formula. On the whole, though, there is no significant evidence that these infant formulas are better. There is some evidence that infant formula with added LCPs, similar to those naturally found in breastmilk, might help with brain development.
A brand might be more expensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s better for your baby. A hospital’s use of a particular brand of infant formula doesn’t mean that the brand is the ‘best’.
Preparing infant formula
Infant formulas are most commonly available in powder form. You prepare the infant formula by adding the powder to cooled boiled water.
It’s very important to wash and sterilise bottles and teats, and boil water. This will stop the formula from being contaminated by any bacteria that might make your baby sick.
Video Bottle and formula preparation
This video is available in different languages
This short video shows you how to prepare baby formula and expressed breastmilk for bottle-feeding to newborns and young babies.
Infant formula made from ingredients other than cow’s milk
For babies under 12 months of age, cow’s milk-based infant formula is recommended over formulas made from soybeans, almonds, rice, coconut, goat’s milk, modified lactose formula, or other ingredients.
Soy infant formula
Consuming high levels of soy can have potential risks for young children. For example, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) notes that phytoestrogen compounds in soy formula might affect babies’ growing neuro-endocrine systems and immune systems. But there is no compelling research to either prove or disprove that these compounds harm babies.
If you don’t want to use regular infant formula because of cultural, religious or other beliefs, soy formula will give your child all necessary nutrients. For example, you might be vegan and want a vegan diet for your child.
Some babies can’t consume dairy-based products because of intolerances. If you’re thinking of switching to a soy formula because you think your baby has an allergy to cow’s milk formula, talk to your doctor first. Soy formulas don’t prevent allergies.
Note that your baby can’t get necessary nutrients from soy milk for adults.
Homemade infant formula
Some parents might be interested in making homemade infant ‘formula’ using bone broth and other ingredients. Homemade formula or broth is not a suitable alternative to breastmilk or shop-bought cow’s milk-based infant formula.
Until your baby is 12 months of age, use only shop-bought infant formula as an alternative to breastmilk. If you’re thinking of feeding your baby something other than breastmilk or cow’s milk-based infant formula, talk to your doctor or child and family health nurse first.
Infant formula with special additives
Some infant formulas have extra elements to make them more like breastmilk:
- 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’ 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.
If an infant formula has some extra ingredients similar to those in breastmilk, it doesn’t necessarily mean those ingredients will work in the same way in your baby’s body. Formulas with added LCPs, betacarotene or probiotics might be more expensive than other formulas.
Changing infant formula
Once you’ve settled on an infant formula for your baby, it’s better not to change formulas too often. The taste will vary slightly and it might upset your baby’s feeding routine.
Follow-on infant formula
You don’t need to change to a ‘follow-on formula’ after your baby reaches six months.
Although you might see advertisements about the benefits of follow-on infant formulas, health professionals say that they have no advantages over starter or first formulas.
If you do decide to change infant formula, read the directions on the new formula label carefully. Different formulas have different-sized scoops and are made up in different ways. You shouldn’t give follow-on formula to babies under six months.