Overwhelmed by the baby formula aisle? I was too.
A quick backstory
Three days into Caden’s life, waiting to discharge from the hospital, the pediatrician entered with concern over Caden’s weight – he’d passed the 10% weight loss threshold. In order to be allowed to leave, he needed to sustain or gain weight over the next ten hours. Like most c-section mamas, my milk had yet to come in. My big baby (born at 9.5 lbs) needed more than what I could give.
So that was the start of our formula journey officially. I felt absolutely terrible that I so soon was “giving in” to formula. On top of the guilt, I realized I had zero knowledge on what was even in formula. I regretted not taking the time to educate myself before having the stress of a newborn crying in front of me. This is why I recommend you add this to your third trimester checklist.
Once my milk finally came in, I was met with many feeding and health challenges postpartum (I’ll share more about this in time) that ultimately drove to a low milk supply. By three months old I was consistently supplementing Caden with formula. Eventually I transitioned him to full formula feeding by eight months.
My journey made me realize that it didn’t have to be all or nothing. Combo feeding was what was best for both Caden and I’s mental and physical health. Having the right formula on hand to supplement my supply made me feel confident, and at ease. Disclaimer: I am not a scientist, nutritionist or pediatrician, and all opinions here are my own.
Starting my research on how to pick a baby formula
Not only is infant feeding, in general, anxiety-inducing, it comes with its own set of societal pressures. And as the recent shortage has shown us, the industry itself can be quite dysfunctional. It doesn’t take long to find yourself scrolling through a myriad of “breast is best” comments on Instagram before you start questioning your own priorities, capabilities and decisions. Needless to say, it can be very hard to make sense of the formula market to feel confident in selecting the best formula for your baby.
With Caden, I poured countless hours into researching all sorts of formulas to figure out what was best for my family and ended up selecting Hipp Dutch and ordering it from a European formula site that ships worldwide. This time around, ahead of Willow’s birth, I decided to select one of the newcomers on the US market, ByHeart, to have on hand if/when she needed it.
To help guide you on your journey towards picking an infant formula, I’m breaking down the basics—what ingredients we should be looking for and the key differences between some of the popular U.S. and European brands.
What is infant formula actually made up of?
The three macronutrients—protein, carbohydrates and fat—make up the majority of infant formula. If it’s being sold on store shelves, you can bet on the fact that it meets the guidelines set out by the FDA, which regulates all infant formulas sold in the U.S.
You’ll find different types of formula base from cow’s milk-based (whole and skim), goat’s milk, soy and specialized. Though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), recommends cow’s milk-based formula, some babies are sensitive to lactose, so hydrolyzed and soy are great alternatives. Specialized formula is for babies with specific medical needs or those born preterm.
Some formulas have “extras” outside of the necessary vitamins, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), arachidonic acid (AHA), probiotics and prebiotics and lutein, which is found naturally in human breast milk. Lutein is also found in leafy veggies like kale, spinach and broccoli.
How to pick the right infant formula
Here are a few things to consider as you make your decision.
Ingredients: There is no such thing as a bad infant formula choice, but there are ingredients that are better than others. You may consider FDA standards baseline, and prefer higher quality ingredients. Also, finding what works best for your baby may take some experimentation.
Convenience: As a busy mom, I very much take convenience into account. If it’s not available for delivery from my weekly grocery shopping merchants, I need to make sure I can subscribe for an easy monthly delivery.
Cost: Cost is a huge factor when it comes to infant formula, seeing as the average family spends between $1,000 and $5,000 per year on the stuff. While most parents agree that it’s hard to put a price on your child’s nutrition, this is a decision you’ll know how to make best for your family.
Safety: Baby formula is highly regulated, and the manufacturing process has strict standards accordingly. It’s important you feel you can trust the quality of each batch of formula you purchase.
The formula brands I considered—broken down
Costco’s baby formula is super affordable compared to name brands you’d find in “big box” stores. It’s made by Abbot, the manufacturing company that makes the majority of baby formulas in the U.S., and contains the FDA-recommended amount and proportion of nutrients for your baby. It also includes extras like prebiotics, DHA and lutein. As with most Kirkland brand products, I found a lack of transparency for how ingredients in this formula were sourced. $0.57/oz
This brand has been around for nearly a century. Their Pro-Advance formula is one of their more popular—it’s non-GMO and milk-based with all of the key ingredients your baby needs. It’s also often available in most U.S. stores. If considering this option, I’d consider Kirkland’s ProCare instead given the similarities and cost savings. $1.21/oz
If you’re looking for a USDA-certified organic infant formula, this is a great choice. Their organic infant formula is more affordable than other organic infant formulas. It is also fortified with iron, prebiotic fiber, omega-3 and omega-6 DHA and it’s non-GMO. $1.36/oz
Launched in 2019, Bobbie is a newcomer to the U.S. formula sphere. It’s organic, non-GMO and contains locally sourced and produced ingredients. It’s lactose-based and fortified with both iron, DHA and AHA. One unique benefit of Bobbie is that it not only meets U.S. requirements for formula, but also European requirements, which are notably stricter. They received the Clean Label Project Purity Award which praises brands who are transparent with consumers about what’s in their products while simultaneously meeting the rigorous standards set by the nonprofit. $1.86/oz
This new brand, launched right before the formula shortage in early 2022, spent five years completely redesigning the traditional formula recipe based on the most up-to-date breast milk research and nutrition science. Two big innovations that are new to the US formula market: it uses whole milk and does not use soy oil. It also received the Clean Label Project Purity Award. If you are between Bobbie and ByHeart, I found this article by the Formula Mom very helpful. FWIW I decided to purchase ByHeart prior to Willow’s arrival, but have not yet used it to provide feedback. $1.62/oz
This is a European brand formula designed for different infant needs based on age. It is organic, gluten free, non-GMO and free of corn syrup. It has DHA, ARA, prebiotics and probiotics to aid in the development of a healthy gut microbiome. The brand itself makes slight variations depending on the country (UK, German, Dutch). The Dutch version comes in a can and has a longer-shelf life. This is the formula I selected for Caden and have positive things to say. Note: I also considered Holle, but quickly leaned into Hipp Dutch given the prebiotics and probiotics included. $1.63/oz (plus shipping)
Fed is best. So whether you choose to exclusively breastfeed, combo feed or formula feed, there are no right or wrong answers to ensuring your baby has a full tummy. Hoping this helps your confidence in making that decision.