Types of Formula for Babies

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 15, 2023
3 min read

Babies rely on breast milk or formula for nutrition during the first 12 months of their lives. Every baby is different, so there are many options available for concerned mothers. Regardless of which type of formula you choose, it should be iron-fortified to provide your baby with the recommended amount of that nutrient each day. Your baby will likely be consuming 24 ounces a day by the time they are one month old. 

Cow milk-based. Cow milk-based formula uses milk treated with heat and other methods that make the proteins within the milk safe for infant consumption. Baby formula made using cow milk comes fortified with iron and an amount of lactose matching that is naturally found in breast milk. Butterfat gets removed from cow milk-based formula and replaced with more easily digestible oils or fats. 

Extensively hydrolyzed. An extensively hydrolyzed formula is one in which the proteins have been broken down into smaller components that are easier for a baby’s digestive system to handle. This type of formula is also known as “predigested.” Babies with allergies or other health conditions often benefit from an extensively hydrolyzed formula. Parents can ask for recommendations from a pediatrician if their infant’s health problems interfere with their ability to consume other formula types. 

Soy. Soy baby formula contains a combination of protein and carbohydrates that differs from that found in milk-based baby formula. A doctor may recommend giving your baby a soy-based baby formula if they are lactose intolerant. Infants who have trouble with cow milk-based baby formula tend to have an easier time with soy-based baby formula. 

Specialized formulas. Babies born with heart disease or other medical issues can benefit from baby formulas made with their condition in mind. 

You can usually find baby formula in the following forms: 

  • Powder. Powdered formula typically comes in a container with a scoop. You measure out the correct amount of water first, then add the baby formula into a feeding bottle. Shake until the powder dissolves and creates a milky liquid. 
  • Liquid concentrate. Liquid concentrate formula works similarly to powder formula. You measure out the correct amount of concentrate and water before mixing. The cost of liquid concentrate baby formula tends to be higher than what you pay for powdered baby formula. 
  • Ready-to-feed. Ready-to-feed formula requires no measuring or mixing. You can find these formulas in containers of various sizes. They can usually be stored at room temperature and then refrigerated for up to 48 hours after opening. That convenience usually comes at a higher cost. 

All commercial baby formulas receive oversight from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure that they meet established nutritional requirements and safety standards. For any formula you buy, make sure to check that the expiration date hasn't passed and that the container doesn't have any leaks and is otherwise in good condition. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the FDA advise against giving babies homemade baby formula, as it could lead to health issues for the infant. There may not be the right balance of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals available in a homemade formula to sustain the baby. 

You should also show caution when purchasing baby formula made overseas. While it may be tempting to buy a product from a different country that promises all-natural or organic ingredients, there’s no proof that such products are better for infants. An illegally imported formula that wasn’t shipped or stored in ideal conditions could end up harming your baby.  

Only mix formula with water obtained from a safe water source. If you have concerns about where your water is coming from, boil the water for just 1 minute, then wait for it to return to room temperature (no more than 30 minutes). To make sure the water isn't too hot for your baby, you can test a few drops on the inside of your wrist. After this process the water should be safe to use in baby formula.

Most babies can start drinking fortified cow’s milk once they are 12 months old. Avoid feeding babies younger than 12 months any drinks meant for toddlers, and instead keep feeding them infant formula to make sure they have all their nutritional needs met.