Infant formulas 101

Infant formulas 101

Infant formula can provide a safe and healthy alternative to breast milk. The standard infant formula for combines cow's milk proteins with vegetable fat, lactose, and all the vitamins and minerals that a baby needs to grow. Most babies grow and thrive throughout the first year of life on infant formula. However, some babies need special formulas.

The table below lists the different types of formulas and what they are used for to meet your baby's specific needs. 

TypeIndications for UseNames of Proprietary Formulasa,b
Routine cow's milk basedSimilar to nutrient composition of breast milkTerm babies who are not breast-fed.Similac AdvanceEnfamil Lipil Premium, NewbornOrganic (Earth's Best, Similac Organic)
SoySimilar to nutrient composition of breast milk but with soy-protein sourceBabies with milk-protein allergy.Babies of vegan families.Lactose-intolerant babies.Similac Isomil AdvanceEnfamil Prosobee LipilGerber Good Start SoyOrganic (Earth's Best) 
Rice-starch formulaBabies with gastroesophageal reflux.Enfamil ARSimilac Sensitive for Spit Up
Intact protein with low lactoseBabies with lactose intolerance.Similac Sensitive
Partial protein hydrolysates Fussy babies.Gerber Good StartcEnfamil Gentlease 
Protein hydrolysatePartially broken-down proteinsBabies with cow's-milk- and soy-protein allergy or malabsorption.Similac Alimentum AdvanceEnfamil PregestimilEnfamil Nutramigen Lipil
ElementalCompletely broken-down proteinsBabies with severe allergies or malabsorption.ElecareNeocateNutramigen AA Lipil 
PretermHighest in calories, protein, vitamins, and mineralsBabies born under thirty-four weeks gestational age or under 5.5 lbs. These are hospital-based formulas and are not available at retail stores.Similac Special Care, High ProteinEnfamil PrematureGerber Good Start Premature 24d
TransitionalHigh in calories, protein, vitamins, and mineralsBabies born preterm who are ready to be discharged from the NICU.Babies with slow growth on standard term formula or who are fluid restricted.Similac NeosureEnfamil EnfacareGerber Good Start Nourishd

a All formula names are registered trademarks. Dr. Stan's specific recommendations for each type of type formula and more thorough descriptions are available in What to Feed Your Baby.

b Various store brands are available; most indicate they are comparable to a brand in this chart.

c Gerber Good Start varieties within this category include Gentle, Protect, and Soothe (Please see What to Feed Your Baby, for further information).

d These formulas are 100 percent whey protein; the others are whey predominant with casein (please see the appendix of What to Feed Your Baby for more details). 

The main manufacturers of infant formula are Abbott (which makes the Similac products); Mead Johnson (which makes the Enfamil line); Nestle (which makes Gerber formula and infant food); and Perrigo (which makes most of the store brands).    

Rice Starch Formulas

Both Abbott and Mead Johnson make formulas that contain rice starch that thickens in the stomach to lessen reflux. In these formulas, rice starch replaces lactose otherwise the calories and nutrients are the same. Learn more.

Lactose-free and Lactose-Reduced Formula

Lactose-free formula replaces lactose with sucrose in regular cow's-milk formula. All other nutrients are the same except calcium is increased by one-third because calcium is less absorbed with sucrose than with lactose. Lactose sensitivity is rare in infants. It occurs primarily during and briefly after an intestinal infection. 

Predigested Formulas (Protein Hydrolysates)

The proteins in these formulas are chemically digested to lessen the potential for allergies and improve formula tolerance. They come in 3 varieties: partially digested (which improves the taste and are much less expensive); completely digested (which can be used for most babies with existing allergies); and simple fats (for poor digestion and malabsorption).

Soy Formula 

Soy formulas are similar in composition to cow's milk formula. The protein is made from soy and the sugar is sucrose instead of lactose. These formulas are best for vegetarian/vegan families, infants with milk allergies or sensitivities and those who get lactose intolerance for after they have an intestinal infection.