There is pretty conclusive evidence that breast-feeding offers most babies the best start in life and confers a whole range of health benefits. The advice is that all babies ideally are exclusively breastfed for the first six months and then breastfed alongside weaning.
However, for a lot of mothers and babies, breast-feeding may not be possible or preferable. For example, the mother may be on medication that makes breastfeeding unsafe. In these circumstances, then infant formula provides a very good alternative.
Does my baby actually need formula?
If your baby is less than 12 months old and is not fully breastfed, then yes, they will require infant formula until they reach their first birthday.
What is in infant formula?
Infant formula is a powdered substitute for breast milk. It is made from processed, altered skimmed cow's milk to make it resemble breast milk as much as possible. It has added fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and other trace ingredients too.
What are the facts about the different formulas available?
- Infant formula: this is advised from birth to 12 months of age because it is the milk that is most easily digested and meets the requirements of a newborn. There is very little difference between the different formulas on the market as the composition of all infant formula in the UK is strictly controlled so it really is down to preference.
- Hungry baby milk: this has the same calorie content as standard infant formula but theoretically, it is meant to keep the baby feeling fuller for longer, to try and enable parents of 'hungry babies' to delay weaning. There is no clear evidence of how effective it is however, and this type of milk can often make a baby constipated.
- Follow-on milks : these should not be used for babies under six months of age at all. Current government advice is that follow-on milks are not recommended for any children. However, it is suggested that if a baby is formula fed, they should remain on infant formula up until the age of 12 months. Once they reach this age, they can then be moved onto full fat cow's milk. Manufacturers promote the additional iron content in follow-on milks, but iron is absorbed more eﬀectively from foods other than milk as part of a varied diet so in most cases this is not necessary.
- Comfort milk: this is suitable from birth and is marketed being beneficial for babies with colic or constipation. It contains more easily digested proteins in and less lactose (milk sugar). The milk is also slightly thickened to help reduce the baby swallowing air as they feed. Again, the evidence for comfort milk is sketchy but anecdotally seems to help in some.
- Stay down or anti-reflux milk: these contain corn starches or carob gums to thicken the milk, helping reduce reflux and vomiting. This can be useful in children with reflux, but simple measures such as elevating the head of the cot may prove more effective.
- Growing up/toddler milks: these are aimed at one- to three-year-olds, and again are advertised as being a good source of iron and calcium. However, consensus is they are not usually necessary and add little nutritional benefit to the child's diet. Toddler milks also contain up to twice as much sugar than is found in cow's milk so are best avoided to reduce the risk of tooth decay.
- Soya milk: this is available over the counter, but is not usually recommended as a sole source of nutrition for babies, and should only be used on the advice of a health professional due to the high levels of phytoestrogens that are present in the milk.
There are also a number of specialist milks available on prescription. These include high-calorie alternatives for premature babies and also formulas suitable for children with cow's milk protein allergy (hydrolysed and amino acid formulas).
If you are unsure please do speak to your health visitor or GP for advice as there are so many options available.