How to Choose Baby Formula

By Jackie Cartier
October 18, 2017

This blog post is the first post of a 2-part series on baby formula. You can read Part 2, How to Tell if the Formula You're Using is A Good Fit for Your Baby, here.

What a loaded question. So much so that we’re going to take two blog posts to answer it. But first, let us introduce Dr. Bridget Young. Dr. Young knew that many parents approach this same formula query with high emotions (and lack of sleep), and with that in mind she created a website to help parents figure out what’s best for their babies. We sat down with her to learn what formula questions she’s frequently asked and provide her kind responses based on considerable experience.  

Formula vs. Breast Milk?babyformula.jpg

Dr. Young clarified that while she created a website – – dedicated to baby formula, first and foremost she is an advocate for breast milk. As a Certified Lactation Counselor she stresses this to her clients, but is quick to say that sometimes, for a variety of reasons, breastfeeding doesn’t always work out. Her second choice? Donor breast milk from a donor bank, but Dr. Young qualified this by sharing that this milk is extremely difficult and expensive to get and is usually prioritized for extremely premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The third choice, and one that many parents find themselves facing, is formula.

Confused By Formula?

“That’s a confusing step for parents! I am a Certified Lactation Counselor and in that role we have tons of resources for families on breastfeeding only. But there comes a time when they need to supplement or it’s best for a family to stop breastfeeding – and at that point there are no unbiased sources of information.” Dr. Young shared that very few professionals in the pediatric world are well versed when it comes to the  grocery store aisle full of formula options. Lactation consultants don’t get any training about formula, same goes for pediatricians.

“That was the biggest question I could not answer – what formula do you recommend? Our baby got a rash, diarrhea (fill in the blank). There is this massive hole in resources for desperate parents who are just trying to find out what’s best for their baby – that’s why I started the website.”

If you are looking for resources on breastfeeding, we highly encourage you to contact a Certified Lactation Professional – a  profession dedicated entirely to getting you and your baby on the right track. Here’s a directory we trust and recommend, International Lactation Consultation Association directory.

So let’s jump into what you should look for when choosing an infant formula.

How to Start Finding Formula for your Infant

Dr. Young boils this answer into two parts – first “All formulas are not the same. There are a lot of differences and that’s overwhelming, but it can be a positive thing because by working with a professional or understanding the ingredients yourself you can find one that is perfect for your baby.”

Second, “There’s also no such thing as a poison formula! A lot of parents will be feeding a formula and their baby is finally thriving – then they learn something about the ingredients and panic because they don’t like it. Do I wish we had tighter regulations for formula, yes, but there are minimal requirements that ensure baby will safely grow.  If baby is thriving, then you have found the perfect one for your baby.”

What You Should Look for in Formula

“The formula ingredient that will make the largest impact on baby is the protein source. It’s the one ingredient that’s most likely to cause a (poor) reaction.” Dr. Young stresses this again and again. As parents purchasing formula, it’s important to know that there are two ways of classifying proteins – the protein source (whey, and/or casein, soy protein) and protein size (intact proteins (from soy or cows) are a large size and then you can break those down into smaller sizes) – that’s where you get this massive variety.

Most formulas on the market are intact proteins. Then smaller size proteins are partially hydrolyzed proteins, and those are generally marketed as “comfort” or “sensitive” formula. The next step down in proteins is a fully hydrolyzed formula in which proteins are even smaller. These often show up in hypo allergenic formulas, which are a good choice for infants with a true cow’s milk allergy (which Dr. Young says isn’t as common as people think). Finally, the smallest protein size is no protein at all; these are free amino acids formulas designed for babies who are quite ill and have digestive disorders.

But … all those proteins are literally right next to each other on the shelves at your local grocer. No wonder so many people are overwhelmed! By understanding your options in protein source and size you can better identify a formula that you want to start with.

So … What Formula Do You Recommend?

“This is by far the number one question I receive, and it’s truly different for every baby,” says Dr. Young. But if you have medically decided you need to supplement with formula, Dr. Young would first ask how old your baby is and if there is an immediate parental history of autoimmune disease. If your baby is young (under six months) and or the autoimmune history exists, Dr. Young says to start your formula trials with a partially hydrolyzed protein that isn’t super harsh and is the size of breast milk proteins. Plus, there’s no harm in providing these hydrolyzed proteins to your infant, though this is an active area of research (whether or not protein size may have an impact on autoimmunity).

There are several options of partially hydrolyzed formulas on the market, and Dr. Young provides some specific recommendations to start with on her website.  Dr. Young has no affiliation with any companies; her recommendations are based on her own research and knowledge.

If baby is healthy and has passed the six-month mark, then he or she can take a full intact protein. That protein size provides a lot of choice for parents, including organic formula and formula without corn syrup. There are a lot of great options for organic formulas free of corn-based sugars. Visit Dr. Young’s website to see some recommendations.

These recommendations are just a start. Dr. Young hopes that parents can become educated and able to look at the label and understand the protein source and size, so if they need to switch an ingredient or ration, they can logically choose another option to try.

Stay tuned early next month as we share how Dr. Young suggests you decide if the formula you are trying is a good fit for your baby. Sign up for our newsletter or follow us on Facebook to be alerted when the next post in the series is available!  

About the author

Jackie Cartier is Content Strategy Manager for Nutritional Weight & Wellness. She was once a client, seeking natural solutions to her achy runner knees and hormonal imbalances. From then she was hooked and eventually ended up on their team, spreading the real food message on the blog and through social media. 

View all posts by Jackie Cartier

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