Choosing a Specialty Formula

Most infant formulas are made from modified cow's milk. Vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are added to make them as close to breast milk as possible, and to give babies the healthiest possible start in life.

But there are some babies who just can't tolerate some of the ingredients in cow's milk. Or, they may have a medical condition that requires different nutrition than a regular formula can offer.

If your baby can't eat regular formula, there are other options created for babies with special nutritional needs. Before you switch formulas, check with your pediatrician. The doctor can help you find the product that's best for your baby.

Soy Formula

Soy formulas contain soy protein along with:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Amino acids
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals

They're an option for babies who:

  • Are lactose-intolerant -- meaning their bodies can't break down a sugar called lactose in cow's milk
  • Have galactosemia -- a disorder that keeps them from breaking down a sugar called galactose in milk
  • Have an intolerance to cow's milk (keep in mind that about half of babies who have this intolerance are also intolerant of soy)

There is no evidence that soy-based formulas can help with issues like colic or a stomach bug.

Hydrolyzed Formula

A small number of babies are intolerant of cow's milk or soy protein. If they drink cow's milk, they will have symptoms such as:

These babies need special predigested formulas -- also called hydrolyzed or hypoallergenic formulas. The milk proteins in these formulas have already been broken down so baby doesn't have an allergic reaction to them.

Partially Hydrolyzed Formula

Partially hydrolyzed formulas contain proteins that have been partly broken down to make them easier for babies to digest. They are sometimes recommended to prevent allergies in babies who are at high risk because they have a lot of family members with allergies.

There's no evidence that partially hydrolyzed formula can prevent babies from getting allergies. But these formulas might offer some protection against the skin disease eczema.

Lactose-Free Formula

Lactose-free formula is an option for babies who can't eat cow's-milk formula because they're lactose-intolerant. This is, however, pretty rare. Although this formula is made from cow's milk, the lactose has been removed.

Babies who have been sick with diarrhea may also find lactose-free formula easier to digest. 


Preterm Formula

Babies who were born too early (before 37 weeks) need more nutrition to help them catch up on growth. Special preterm formulas have the extra protein, calories, calcium, and other nutrients these babies need.

Anti-Reflux Formula

In babies with reflux, the valve that keeps acid in the stomach hasn't developed enough. As a result, acids back up into the esophagus -- the tube that connects the throat with the stomach. Babies with reflux may:

  • Spit up
  • Act cranky
  • Have trouble eating

Anti-reflux formulas are made especially for babies with reflux. They contain rice starch to thicken them and make them easier for babies to keep down. Sometimes this is not enough. If your baby is having reflux symptoms, be sure to speak with your doctor.

Formulas for Babies With Special Health Needs

Babies who are born with certain medical conditions have special dietary needs. Metabolic diseases like PKU (phenylketonuria) prevent the baby's body from breaking down proteins.

Fatty acid diseases like MCAD (medium-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenase) make it harder for the baby to break down fats. Many different formulas are made to meet the nutritional needs of babies with these conditions.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on May 26, 2020



American Academy of Pediatrics: "Choosing a Formula."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Infant Formula."

U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Infant Feeding Guide. Chapter 4: Infant Formula Feeding."

O'Connor, N. American Family Physician, April 1, 2009.

BMJ: "Diarrhea in Children."

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: "Infant formula of partially hydrolyzed whey is not the secret weapon for preventing childhood allergy and asthma."

New England Journal of Medicine: "Partially Hydrolyzed Formula to Prevent Eczema."

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