Today, most parents use traditional cow’s milk infant formulas to feed their children without considering any alternatives to formula. This is because after well over 100 years of research and scientific breakthroughs related to infant nutrition, cow’s milk formulas are currently the closest thing we have to replicating breast milk that can also be safely mass produced.
However, some infants are allergic, intolerant, or sensitive to this type of formula. We also understand that some families will want to look at cow’s milk formula alternatives for religious, lifestyle or cultural reasons.
So we’ve written out this guide to help you understand which alternatives to formula are safe and appropriate to use, when they should be used, and which ones should be avoided.
Alternatives to formula worth considering
Donor breast milk
Donor human milk (DHM) is breast milk that has been donated by other breastfeeding mothers. It is the first and most natural alternative to breast milk.
Donor human milk is recommended by the World Health Organization both for its advantageous nutritional and biological properties when mother’s own milk is not available and for its recognized support for lactation and breastfeeding when used appropriately.
Donor milk is an excellent alternative to formula for families that wish to give breast milk to their baby but are unable to meet the demands of their little ones. This is a very common problem and proven by the fact that 83% of families turn to formula in the first year of life.
Donor milk is also recommended by the World Health Organization for low and very low birthweight infants, as well as small and sick newborns who cannot be fed their mother’s own milk.
Many hospitals have policies about giving donor milk while still in the hospital so if you were thinking about bringing any with you, I would recommend you check with your local hospital before doing so. They have good reasons for doing this so you’ll just want to be aware of their policies.
Where to get donor milk
An increasing number of human milk banks are being established around the world, especially in lower socioeconomic areas to facilitate the collection, processing and distribution of donor human milk. You should check your local area for a milk bank if this is of interest to you.
The local hospital or medical associations that run many of the milk banks adhere to strict standards and testing but it’s important to keep in mind, in contrast to other medical products of human origin, there are no minimum quality, safety and ethical standards for donor human milk and no coordinating global body to inform policies.
The other way people typically get donor milk is from a trusted friend or family member who is also breastfeeding. It’s best to read up on best practices around storing, transfering, thawing and dispensing of donor milk with this person to ensure you both are doing everything possible to keep the donor milk as pristine as possible.
And lastly, there is an underground market for breast milk. Please do not go here. There are no health and safety standards to rely on and diseases like HIV can be passed through donor milk. Your baby would be better off on formula than going this route.
Goat milk formula
Goat milk formula is exactly what it sounds like. Milk from a goat rather than a cow. It provides essential nutrients suitable for babies who receive a combination of breastfeeding and formula feeding, or exclusively rely on formula.
Goat formula closely resembles dairy-based formulas in terms of fulfilling your child’s nutritional requirements. It naturally contains significant amounts of protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin A.
However, what sets it apart is the presence of A2 milk protein found in goat milk, as opposed to A1 protein found in cow’s milk. This distinction makes goat formula potentially easier to digest for babies who experience cow’s milk intolerance or lactose sensitivity. Moreover, the fat content in goat’s milk may also be more digestible compared to that in cow’s milk.
For all you nerds out there, A1 and A2 refer to the type of casein protein that is found in milk. Casein is a category of proteins and beta casein is a specific type of casein and there are two types… A1 and A2. The only difference is 1 amino acid in the entire chain. The A1 protein has evolved from the A2 protein and some studies (not in infants) have shown that A1 proteins can cause some mechanical digestive issues.
So if your baby is having some digestive issues this could be a great alternative option to consider. We cover all the details in our guide to goat milk vs cow milk.
A2 milk formula
Following on from our previous section on goat milk, there are formulas that are made specifically with A2 Milk. A2 milk is a safe alternative to regular cow’s milk that is often easier for babies to digest.
A2 milk can come from goats, or from a small population of cow’s that happen to produce A2 vs. A1 milk. This is a great option to consider if you’ve tried other formulas and your baby still just doesn’t seem comfortable.
Plant based formulas
Vegan organic rice starch formula
Sprout Organic Plant-Based Infant Formula is a world-first vegan formula designed and approved for babies 0-12 months.
This formula is based on rice starch rather than soy. While this raises concerns about heavy metal contamination, Sprout Organic formulas comply with Australian regulations on heavy metals, including arsenic.
Australia and New Zealand have robust standards for infant formula. This includes regulations governing levels of micro and macro nutrients needed for healthy growth and development. Rigorous tests and safety checks are required for approval for sale, including serious pharmaceutical grade Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards.
If you’re also raising a vegan baby, are just looking for an eco-friendly formula option, or have an infant with a cow’s milk allergy, this is an alternative to formula worth considering. The founders are loving and caring parents who wanted a different type of formula for their family. So they made it.
Soy milk formula
Soy formulas are formulated using soy protein and serve as an alternative to cow’s milk formulas. They are specifically designed for infants up to 12 months of age but should really only be used for a few reasons.
Some parents opt for soy-protein-based baby formula due to the belief that it can alleviate gas, fussiness, or colic. However, it is important to note that switching formulas typically does not alleviate these symptoms.
Experts strongly advise against quickly transitioning to soy formula unless there is a medical indication, emphasizing the importance of breast milk or cow’s milk-based formula as the primary options. The American Academy of Pediatrics (A.A.P.) has strict criteria for when a soy formula should be used:
- In cases of food allergy when hypoallergenic or elemental formulas have not worked.
- In cases of Galactosemia.
- A religious or cultural need for a plant-based option.
In summary, soy formula is often recommended as the very last step rather than a starting point. There is almost always a non-soy, workable option if traditional cow milk formulas haven’t worked for your baby. Please consult with your pediatrician if you are considering using a soy formula.
Formula alternatives to avoid
Coconut milk formula [no]
Coconut milk should never be given to your baby before 12 months as a replacement for breast milk or formula. It can be a terrific ingredient for cooking food for babies as young as 6 months of age, but not as a replacement for breast milk or formula milk as it cannot provide the required nutrition for a growing baby.
Rice milk formula [no, no]
Rice milk is produced from rice grains, which undergo a milling process followed by diffusion to separate the granules after pressing. Another method involves using rice flour combined with protein from brown rice.
The natural sweetness of rice milk stems from the conversion of carbohydrates into sugars. Since rice is predominantly composed of carbohydrates, rice milk aligns with this profile. It has been identified as a safe and suitable alternative for toddlers with milk allergies.
However, it is important to note that rice milk is not recommended for infants under the age of one.
Homemade baby formula [no, no, no]
This is a big fat NO. I’m not even going to go into the details here. You should not be feeding your baby a homemade baby formula, plain and simple. I understand that this was widely considered during the formula crisis in 2022 but please, unless you literally can’t find formula or any other alternative above, do not go down this route.
Homemade formula may not be safe or meet your baby’s nutritional needs. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) reports that some babies fed homemade formula have been hospitalized for hypocalcemia (low calcium), for example.
Baby formula ingredients you should consider avoiding
There are so many things to consider when choosing a formula for your baby. And if you’re looking at alternatives to formula, there are even more things to consider. Another place many parents look to when deciding the right option for their family is the ingredients list. Below is a quick snapshot of some ingredients that you might want to avoid as you find the right formula for your family.
- GMO ingredients (non-organic): Organic formula does not necessarily mean that it’s safest or best. However, it is a good step in the right direction. USDA Organic certification means that a US recipe is free from GMOs, antibiotics, growth hormones, and conventional seeds oils, which are often extracted with hexane.
- Corn-based products and fillers: Including Corn Syrup Solids and High Fructose Corn Syrups, Maltodextrin.
- Carrageenan: often found in formula, as well as in processed foods such as lunch meats and nut milk. Carrageenan is a seaweed-derived thickener that can be used to prevent intestinal inflammation. It has even been linked to colon cancer. Carrageenan is banned in Europe.
- Processed sweeteners: Sucrose and Maltodextrin; Cane Sugar, Brown Rice Syrup. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Corn Syrup Solids.
- Soy and soy derivatives: Non-organic soybeans (including soybean oil, soy lecithin) are almost certainly GMO. Many soy formulas include synthetic l-methionine, which is often made using toxic chemicals. The use of synthetic L-methionine is prohibited by European organic standards, but US formulas contain it. Soy lecithin contains a chemical called Hexane, and all soy-containing foods have natural-occurring phytoestrogens. Although there have not been any definitive studies on the effects of these chemicals, studies showing the presence in infants’ bloodstreams from those who were fed soy-based formulas do. For babies still in development, doctors warn about adverse estrogen effects in male and female infants.
- Added fatty acids extracted via hexane: This one surprised me as we all know that fatty acids are essential for brain development and good health. These fatty acids are always prominently advertised on formula packaging, so I believed it was a necessity. They are synthetic forms of DHA/ARA, and many are extracted with hexane.
A final word on formula alternatives
As you can see, there is a wide variety of alternatives to generic cow’s milk formula that you can consider depending on your preferences. But the most important thing we want to stress is that there are definitely alternatives that you should completely cross off your list as they are not going to provide your baby with the optimal health and safety benefits that should be your number one priority.