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Infant Formulas - Topic Overview

What are infant formulas, and what's in them?

Infant formula is a nutritional product that is made from processed cow's milk or soybean products. Special processing makes cow's-milk formula more digestible and less likely to cause an allergic reaction than regular cow's milk.

Vitamins and minerals are added to infant formula. Formula can be used to provide all of a baby's nutritional needs before the age of 4 to 6 months.

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Commercial formulas are made to be as similar to breast milk as possible. The safety and nutrient content of infant formula is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

About half the calories in formula come from vegetable oils or a mixture of vegetable and animal fats. A baby's body requires fat for the production and growth of new cells and for high energy needs.

Milk sugar (lactose) is the main source of carbohydrate in most cow's-milk formula, just as in breast milk.

What types of formulas are there?

Several types of infant formulas are available. Usually cow's-milk formulas are tried first. Babies absorb minerals and nutrients better from cow's-milk formulas than other types of formulas.

Babies need iron in addition to other vitamins and minerals. The iron in human milk is much more easily absorbed by infants than the iron in cow's milk. (But even breast-fed babies need iron added to their diet.) Formula-fed babies can become iron-deficient if iron-fortified formulas are not used. Iron deficiency may cause severe complications in babies, such as weakness, abnormal digestion, and permanently reduced learning abilities. In the United States, a formula with an iron concentration of 6.7 mg/L or higher is considered iron-fortified. And the label must say that.1 The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends testing for anemia in babies at 12 months of age.

Some caregivers may be hesitant to feed an infant iron-fortified formula because of concern about side effects, such as gas or constipation. But these concerns have not been proved by research, and low-iron formulas are not recommended as a remedy for such symptoms. Although low-iron formulas are available, they should only be used in extremely rare situations on the advice of your doctor.

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