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Whether you're strictly formula feeding or combining formula with breastfeeding, it's natural to want to find the best formula for your baby. According to a survey by Which?, 56% of mothers with children under three wanted to know the differences between formula brands, 46% wanted to know how formula compares with breast milk and 27% wanted to know whether price reflects quality.
There's no real difference between baby formulas sold in the UK. The ingredients in UK formulas are tightly controlled under The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula (England) regulations, meaning the make-up of most formulas is exactly the same.
The makeup is slightly different in organic formulas from brands like HiPP and SMA, but even in non-organic formulas the pesticide level is very low.
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Types of formula milk
Formula comes in two different forms - a dry powder that you mix with water, or a ready-to-feed liquid. Read-to-feed liquids are convenient, but they do tend to be more expensive than powder formulas.
It's worth nothing that, according to NHS guidelines, formula milk does contain all the nutrition your baby needs for growth and development, but it doesn't contain the same health benefits as breastfeeding, such as protection from infections.
First infant formula
First infant formula is suitable from birth and is the only formula your baby needs until they are 1 year old. The cow's milk in formula contains two proteins, whey and casein, and first infant formula is based on whey protein as it's thought to be easier to digest.
Your baby can stay on this formula all the way through weaning at 6 months and throughout their first year.
When your baby is one, they can start to drink whole cow's, sheep's or goat's milk, as long as it's pasteurised.
Hungrier baby formula
This kind of formula is also suitable from birth, and can be used if your baby struggles to settle or stay full on normal formula. However, there's no concrete evidence to prove this.
"Hungry baby" formula contains more casein than way, making it harder to digest and it's thought this keeps your baby full for longer.
Anti-reflux or "staydown" formula is also suitable from birth and is thickened to prevent babies from spitting up their milk.
It's widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies, but it's usually only used on the recommendation of your health visitor or midwife.
Comfort fomula can be drunk from birth and contains partially broken down cow's milk. This makes the milk much easier for your baby to digest, aiding feeding through problems like colic or constipation, although there's no evidence to suggest that this works for all babies.
Follow-on formula is suitable for babies that are 6 months and older. There's no research that shows that switching to follow-on milk has benefits for your baby, so you can continue to use first infant milk until your baby is one, then switch to whole cow's milk.
Good night milk
Good night milk is suitable for babies that are 6 months or older and usually contains cereals. It's sold as a special milk for babies to have at bedtime, but there's no evidence to suggest that babies sleep or longer or settle better after having it.
Growing up milk
Growing up milks are suitable for babies 1 year old and upwards, and are usually marketed as an alternative to cow's milk. There's no evidence to suggest that growing up milks are more nutritionally beneficial than cow's milk, which your baby can drink once they reach age one. The NHS also recommends that all children aged 6 months to 5 years have vitamin drops containing vitamins A, C and D every day.
Types of non-cow's milk formula
Sometimes babies cannot have cow's milk based formulas, for example if your baby has an allergy. There are plenty of alternatives on the market, most of which can be prescribed through your GP.
Goat's milk formula
Goat's milk formula is suitable for your baby from birth, but it's not suitable for babies with a cow's milk allergy. This is because the proteins in the formulas are very similar.
If your baby is allergic to cow's milk, your GP will prescribe a hypoallergenic formula with fully broken down proteins that are easier for your baby to digest.
Soya formula is only suitable for babies from 6 months old, and is usually only used under medical supervision. It can be used as an alternative to cow's milk formulas if your baby has a cow's milk allergy because it's made from soya beans.
There are some concerns around using a soya formula, namely the fact that soya formula contains phytoestrogens (similar to oestrogen), which could affect a baby's reproductive development, and glucose, which could harm your baby's teeth.
This type of forumla is suitable from birth and is for babies who cannot absorb lactose, a sugar that occurs naturally in dairy products. Lactose intolerance in babies is fairly rare, and symptoms include diarrhoea, abdominal pain, wind and bloating.
You should always speak to your midwife, health visitor or GP if you suspect your baby is lactose intolerant.
Types of milk to avoid
Not all milk is suitable for babies, especially those under 1 year. According to the NHS, You should never give these types of milk to your baby:
- Condensed milk
- Evaporated milk
- Dried milk
- Goats' or sheep's milk (but it's fine to use them when cooking for your baby, as long as they are pasteurised)
- Other types of drinks known as "milks", such as soya, rice, oat or almond drinks
- Cows' milk as a drink (but it's fine to use it in cooking)
How to choose the best formula milk for your baby
Every baby is different, and they'll all have specific needs. It's worth checking in with your midwife, health visitor or GP if you suspect your baby has an allergy, and always make sure to read the labels on baby formula carefully.