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How to choose baby formula

How to choose baby formula
Latest posts by Keith Lindner (see all)

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Breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition for infants. Our recommendations are based on the products we have personally used or researched; they are not a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult your pediatrician before making any changes to your child’s diet, especially in cases where your baby has dietary restrictions or allergies.

Choosing the right baby formula for your baby can feel like an overwhelming responsibility for many parents. Are you supposed to opt for standard, gentle, or sensitive? Is ready-to-feed or powdered formula better? And what about MFGM, HMO, DHA, ARA or all the other unfamiliar terms that look like they belong on your 8th grade chemistry test?

Well, fear not! The process of choosing a baby formula is far simpler than it initially appears once you know the basics.

Choosing a baby formula ultimately comes down to your preferences

Much of the decision will ultimately come down to your family’s unique preferences and constraints, including: 

As with just about everything related to parenting, your decision on how to choose baby formula is unique so it’s our goal to give you the confidence to make that decision. Our goal is to arm you with the information to make an informed decision. Let’s go.

Find the best baby formula for your family

Our team of experts spent 100’s of hours pouring through all of the research, the ingredients, the recipes and the companies.

Baby Swag best baby formulas to consider
Parents looking down on their infant

Keep these 4 things in mind as you pick a formula for your baby

These are our top 4 tips to remember when going through the process of how to choose baby formula. They are ordered on purpose.

1. Nutrients and ingredients are not the same

The #1 thing to understand is that all baby formulas made in the US are required by the FDA to have a minimum amount of 29 essential nutrients in them. So no matter what decision you make, you can be sure that your baby will have the essential stuff they need to grow and develop. Phew. 

This is why if you compare the nutrition label on a bunch of different formulas, they are going to look nearly identical. If you want to see what is unique to a specific formula recipe, you have to look at the ingredients and know how to read that label.

2. Understand what is marketing vs reality

Baby formula is technically considered a food under US guidelines, so that’s the way it’s regulated. This gives baby formula companies quite a bit of freedom in the language they can use to sell their products to all of us vulnerable parents. 

So when you see “closest to breast milk” or “reduce crying in 24 hours” just remember that these are unregulated terms and might not be backed up by very convincing scientific research. Formula companies also use some eye-catching terms like gentle, comforting, sensitive. These terms also don’t really mean anything, they’re simply there for marketing purposes.

3. Look out for the designer extras

The scientific research that goes into baby formula and breast milk is astounding. It’s a big deal and for good reason. Formula companies are always tweaking their recipes to include the latest and greatest science has to offer. Some of the latest ingredients being added to formulas are technically not essential and they usually will cost you some extra cash, hence why we refer to them as ‘designer extra.’. 

Even though we’ll likely never be able to replicate breast milk, these extras inch us ever so closer. It’s important to understand the ones that have been extensively researched and how they may be able to impact your baby.

4. Factor in your baby’s age and the % of your baby’s diet that will be formula

The recommended formula for an exclusively breastfed baby that is now 6 months old, starting to eat some solids and will combo feed might be quite different to the formula for a 2 week old that is switching to an exclusive formula diet. 

After talking to lots of parents, we know this is not something that is widely considered when thinking about how to choose baby formula. Well, we want to change that. We see too many parents stressing over what can actually be relatively minor stuff.

What to look for in baby formula

Macronutrients (the part that make up ~98% of formula)

That’s right, roughly 98% of baby formula is the blend of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. If you can wrap your head around these 3, you’ll be way ahead of the curve. 


Breast milk and cow’s milk vary in several aspects, but one of the biggest differences is the higher quantity of whey protein in breast milk. Cow’s milk contains more casein protein. Both are fine for your baby but we recommend trying to find a formula with more whey since it would more closely mimic breast milk and is usually easier to digest. 

The other important thing to understand with proteins is that the proteins found in cow’s milk (and goat milk) are quite a bit bigger than those in breast milk. Most babies can handle this just fine but some need a little help. 

That means routine cow formulas can be broken down into 3 different types

  • Intact proteins are what you’ll find routine cow’s milk formulas. These proteins are an excellent starting point when choosing a baby formula for the first time since most healthy, full-term babies can digest them easily.
  • Partially hydrolyzed proteins are generally found in formulas labeled as ‘gentle’ formulas. The proteins, either whey or casein, are partially broken down (or “pre-digested”) to a size smaller making the formula easier to digest. These formulas also often contain added whey or use 100% whey protein.
  • Extensively-hydrolyzed proteins, the proteins are broken down even further into really small pieces to help infants with a cow milk protein allergy. These are typically referred to as hypoallergenic formulas

If you’re just starting on your formula journey and haven’t been told differently by your pediatrician, we would start with a routine intact protein formula. Most babies can handle them easily, they’re cheaper and you’ll have more options to choose from.


Lactose is the carb source found in breast milk. So we always want to start with a formula that is lactose based unless your pediatrician has told you something different. This is because full-term babies are born with the ability to digest lactose. 

This is often a source of confusion for parents when infants/children develop an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk-based formula. Many people naturally assume it is the lactose in the milk because lactose makes a lot of parents gassy, crampy, and cranky too. However, when an infant develops a reaction to something in cow’s milk or baby formula it is almost always a component of the protein, not the lactose.  

So, for most healthy babies, lactose is not a bad thing, it’s what they are supposed to eat. That means if your healthy baby is starting off on formula for the first time, we would recommend starting with a lactose-based formula and see how it goes. After all, we’re trying to get as close to breast milk as possible. 

There are alternative carb sources though for infants that have rare conditions that prevent lactose from being digested properly. This includes corn syrup, corn syrup solids, sucrose, and maltodextrin. Note: the corn syrup in baby formula is not the same as the high-fructose corn syrup that makes all of us adults fat and happy. 


Approximately 50% of the calorie content in breast milk is derived from fat. Fats are composed of smaller components known as fatty acids and in order to simulate the composition of breast milk, various fatty acids found in oils are blended into baby formulas. The oils most commonly found in these formulas include palm olein oil, soy oil, coconut oil, high oleic sunflower oil, and high oleic safflower oil.

Despite fats contributing a substantial portion of the calories in baby formula, we intentionally discussed proteins and carbs first. That’s because the science reasons that fats are less likely to trigger common issues (like gas, rash, reflux, etc.) your baby might encounter.

As with everything above the quality and source of the fats in formula are another feature that formula companies like to call out. 

Find the best baby formula for your family

Our team of experts spent 100’s of hours pouring through all of the research, the ingredients, the recipes and the companies.

Baby Swag best baby formulas to consider

Micronutrients (the other 2%)

The other 2% of formula consists of all the other essential vitamins and minerals. This includes more familiar stuff like zinc, iron, vitamin C, and so on. These are required in every formula so you don’t really need to worry too much about this stuff when thinking about how to choose a baby formula. . 

The ‘designer extras’ that we mentioned earlier would also fall into this 2% bucket. Here are the most common ones:

  • Pre & Probiotics – Probiotics are live cultures that maintain or improve good bacteria in the digestive system. Prebiotics are what the probiotics feed off of (the most common being HMO: Human milk oligosaccharide). Each can be added separately.
  • DHA and ARA: two important fatty acids in breast milk that have been shown to promote vision and brain development. Now found in many baby formulas in the US, and required in Europe. These can be added separately.
  • Lactoferrin: Lactoferrin is a protein found in breast milk that aids in supporting digestive health, particularly iron absorption.
  • Choline – A naturally occurring nutrient in breast milk that aids in brain development
  • MFGM (Milk Fat Globule Membrane): MFGM is a membrane that surrounds the fat molecules in breast milk and is believed to aid with cognitive development.

Additional considerations when choosing a formula


It’s important to factor in what you can afford into your decision making process. The cost will ultimately depend on how long you formula feed and what percentage of your baby’s diet is formula vs breast milk (and eventually solid foods).

For anyone exclusively formula feeding from day 1 or fairly early on, the total cost of a more routine baby formula vs a name brand with some of the designer extras mentioned above can be $1000’s. Luckily, we can teach you how to save on baby formula.

Ingredient source (organic vs non-GMO vs routine)

Formula manufacturers source their ingredients from all over the world. Some brands are more proud than others to boast about the source and quality of their ingredients. If finding a formula that is organic (or demeter) or non-GMO is something you want to prioritize, there are now lots of options to choose from. 

We believe it’s worth choosing an organic, non-GMO formula if you can easily afford the higher quality ingredients or if you’re willing to sacrifice a few things in your life to be able to afford them. But it’s definitely not worth it if you’re going to put your family under financial stress to be able to do it. 


The formula crisis of 2022 really showed people how important this is. Hopefully many of the issues that plagued the formula industry at that time are now behind us but it’s still worth considering.

If it’s really important to you to be able to buy your formula at the local supermarket, health food store or pharmacy, that can help narrow down your choices. In our research though, shopping online was now the preferred option for most parents though. 

You can shop around, find ways to save and get special priority from some formula brands like Bobbie.

Find the best baby formula for your family

Our team of experts spent 100’s of hours pouring through all of the research, the ingredients, the recipes and the companies.

Baby Swag best baby formulas to consider

A final word on how to choose a baby formula

If you’ve made it this far, we think it’s important to remind you that ALL baby formulas on the market are nutritionally-complete and promote healthy development. So in some ways, you really can’t go wrong because it’s ok to do a bit of trial and error.

Yes, switching formulas can lead to a couple of gassy, fussy, sleepless days, but remember that you’re in pursuit of the formula your baby tolerates well, so it’s best to keep experimenting if you and your pediatrician don’t think you’ve found the right one yet.

Whatever your decision, you’re doing great and you’re going to figure it out. Feel free to leave feedback or questions in the comments section below.

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