What to Know About Types of Infant Formula

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 04, 2022
4 min read

Infant formula is one of the most significant technological advancements in human history. This replacement for human milk has been used for a long time, although the history of baby formula has been full of controversy. 

Despite all that, the continued enhancement of infant formula and the different types of infant formula have been a lifesaver for many parents.

Baby formula is a product meant to replace human milk in order to offer proper nutrition to babies under 12 months old. Baby formula may also be used to supplement human milk if the infant is not able to get all their nutrition from human milk. 

There are many reasons why parents and caregivers may choose to use formula rather than human milk. These may include medical and socioeconomic factors:

  • The nursing parent is not able to produce enough milk.
  • The nursing parent has a health condition that prevents the child from breastfeeding.
  • The nursing parent takes a medication that makes it unsafe or impossible for them to breastfeed.
  • Nursing is taking a mental toll on the lactating parent or causing trauma.
  • Nursing is causing intense pain or discomfort to the parent.
  • There is no one currently in the child’s life who can nurse them.
  • The lactating parent has to return to work and is not able to nurse their child or pump milk while away.
  • A parent simply isn’t interested in nursing.

There are also reasons that a baby may struggle with drinking human milk. These may include:

  • The baby had a complicated birth.
  • The baby was born prematurely or small.
  • The baby is sick, and they may struggle to drink enough if their noses are stuffy and they can’t breathe well.
  • The baby has low muscle tone, making it hard to latch and suck well.
  • The baby has a lip or tongue-tie, a condition that restricts the range of motion of the lips and/or tongue, making nursing difficult.
  • The baby has a sensitivity or intolerance to human milk.

The benefits of feeding infants human milk has been documented over the years. That being said, once factors such as maternal income and education are factored in, there may not be as large a gap between infants fed with human milk and infants fed with formula.

Infant formula is made of a protein, most often cow’s milk, that has been scientifically altered to more closely resemble human milk. Many infant formulas also include added nutrients, such as:

Regardless of the brand or type, all infant formula sold within the United States must meet the nutritional standards set by the Food and Drug Administration.

There are a few different types of infant formula, as well as a few different forms that infant formula is available in.

Types of infant formula may include:

  • Cow milk, protein-based formula. The majority of infant formulas have a cow milk base that has been modified to be similar to human milk.
  • Soy-based formula. Soy-based formula is an option that parents and caregivers may use if their baby can’t tolerate lactose, a carbohydrate found in cow’s milk.
  • Protein hydrolysate formula. Protein hydrolysate formulas are made from proteins that have been broken down, or hydrolyzed, into smaller sizes. These formulas are meant for babies that can’t digest cow-milk formulas or soy formulas.
  • Specialized formulas. Specialized formulas are formulas made to accommodate premature babies and babies with specific medical conditions.

In addition to these different types of infant formula, there are also three different forms that infant formula comes in. These are:

  • Powdered formula. Powdered formula is the most common and least expensive type of formula. Powdered formula is mixed with water to fill the baby’s bottle.
  • Concentrated liquid formula. Like the powdered formula, concentrated liquid formula must also be mixed with water. 
  • Ready-to-use formula. Ready-to-use formula is formula that doesn’t need to be mixed with water and is ready for your baby to drink. While it’s a very convenient type of formula, it is also the most expensive type.

Because all infant formulas must pass FDA regulations, there is no one best baby formula for every baby. Generic formula can be just as good as name-brand formula. The most important things to look at when purchasing infant formula are:

  • The expiration date. Do not purchase expired formulas.
  • The condition of the container. Containers may receive a few bumps and dents in shipping, but do not use a container that has been opened, is leaking, or is rusty.
  • The age range. Make sure the formula you’re purchasing is meant for your someone of child’s age. If you’re purchasing formula for an infant, do not buy toddler formula.

A few things to consider when purchasing formula are:

  • Is the formula iron-fortified? Most formulas in the U.S. are iron-fortified, and babies need iron to grow and thrive.
  • Is the formula enhanced? There is some evidence that enhanced formulas may benefit your baby, but the research is not conclusive. Talk to your pediatrician if you’re unsure if enhanced formula is necessary for your baby.

You may discover that you or your baby has a preference for a particular brand or type of formula. This is often discovered through trial and error.