Deciding how to feed your baby is an incredibly personal choice, one in which you’ll just want the best for your little one.
Most experts will recommend breastfeeding your baby for the first six months, but in Hong Kong, 66% of moms use at least some formula in the first four weeks.
So it’s comforting to know that baby formula is as close an alternative to breast milk as modern technology can get—with scientists constantly striving to improve its composition.
All formula is also regulated by government agencies, with minimum and maximum nutritional values dictated for water content, carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins and minerals.
Yet despite this, not all baby formula is created equal. And with so many different types out there, how do you pick the right one for your child?
Here are 3 steps to understanding your formula:
1: Know Your Proteins
When choosing your baby formula, it’s important to consider its protein make-up—which is essential for your baby’s growth.
Breast milk is made up of two classes of protein: whey (60%) and casein (40%). Casein clots or curds in the stomach, while whey remains in liquid form and is easier to digest.
This balance from mom allows baby to digest the milk quickly and easily—and this ratio changes as baby grows, in favor of the thicker, more filling casein.
Formula is most commonly made from a base of cows’ milk, which has a different protein ratio of 20% whey to 80% casein.
This ratio is indigestible for babies under 12 months, so formula companies adapt it to different degrees in their manufacturing process.
Bear in mind your protein ratio will differ depending on the milk type you opt for (see below) as well as the brand.
2: Choose Your Protein Source
The Standard: Cows’ Milk Formula
Most formula is made from a modified version of cows’ milk protein (see above), which also contains lactose (a type of sugar in milk) and minerals.
In addition, manufacturers add precisely the right amount of nutrients for your baby, with ingredients such as vegetable oils, vitamins, extra minerals and iron.
TIP: If you suspect your baby has a milk allergy, try a formula that contains no animal proteins (no whey or casein).
Can I calculate the proteins in my formula?
The protein ratio is often a well-kept secret, so will not appear on the label. Instead you need to infer it based on the order of ingredients (the first ingredient listed contains the highest volume.)
If a formula just lists cows’ milk protein you know it’s at a ratio of 20% whey and 80% casein. If you see whey further down the list, you know a whey supplement has been added.
An Alternative: Goats’ Milk Formula
Some parents decide to opt for a formula based on goats’ milk over that of cows. Its make-up is slightly different: containing more easily digestible fats and slightly less lactose.
Its casein proteins are also subtly different, so some babies who reject cows’ milk can find this easier to digest.
There are anecdotal reports of health benefits such as improved gut health, improved skin and reduced mucus production—although there has been little scientific investigation into these claims.
In 2004, goats’ milk was banned from formula in Europe as it wasn’t viewed as nutritionally adequate for infants without modification. This directive was since lifted in 2014, with more brands since introducing versions of goats’ milk enhanced with ingredients such as folic acid and iron.
TIP: Goats’ milk is not recommended for infants with a cows’ milk allergy, as they both contain some of the same casein protein allergens.
For Vegans: Soy Formula
Made from the proteins of soybeans (soy protein isolate), soy formula is an ideal milk-free alternative for vegetarian or vegan families.
As well as containing all the nine essential amino acids, important nutrients such as iron, DHA and vitamin E are added.
The safety of soy formula has been debated over the years because it contains isoflavones, naturally occurring compounds often referred to as phytoestrogens. There has been concern these could negatively affect the body’s estrogen hormone levels, but no studies have shown this to be the case so far.
TIP: If your baby is allergic to cows’ milk protein, they may also be allergic to soy protein. Be sure to consult your health professional before making the switch.
3: Pick Your Stage
For babies under six months, be sure to opt for an ‘infant formula’ (sometimes called Stage 1): where the whey protein is dominant to more closely mimic breast milk, be gentler on little stomachs and easier to digest.
6 Months +:
After six months, you can opt to switch to ‘follow-on’ formula (Stages 2 +), where the casein ratio is higher. It will be slower to digest so your infant feel fuller for longer.
If your baby is happy on infant formula (ie. not feeling hungry too quickly), you can stick with this until 12 months. At this age, regular cow’s milk can also be introduced.
Finally: Organic Or Not?
Organic baby formula contains around the same amount of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals as a non-organic product.
The main difference is the origin of the base ingredients: giving you the confidence that the animals have been raised and milked according to set regulations, plus any vegetables for oils naturally-derived.
They will also contain no processed or refined sugars and no synthetic preservatives.
As new parents, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the formula types on the market. But do remember that there are strict nutritional safeguards in place—so ultimately it comes down to you and your baby’s personal preference.
June is committed to supporting the best possible outcome for moms and babies—whether that is through breastfeeding or formula feeding. We are here to provide evidence-backed information to allow each family to make the choices that are right for them.