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Infant formulas

Contents of this page:

Alternative Names   

Formula feeding; Bottle feeding

Definition    Return to top

Infant formulas are food products designed to provide for the nutritional needs of infants. They include powders, concentrated liquids, or ready-to-use forms.

See also:

Function    Return to top

Infant formulas act as a nutritional source for infants less than 1 year of age.

Food Sources    Return to top

A variety of formulas are available for infants younger than 12 months of age if breast milk is not used. Infant formulas vary in nutrients, calorie count, taste, ability to be digested, and cost.

Guidelines for infant formulas and normal infant feeding based on human breast milk are available from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Specific types of formulas include:

Standard milk-based formulas contain heat-treated cow's milk protein (at reduced concentrations), lactose and minerals from cow's milk, vegetable oils, minerals and vitamins. The amount of each nutrient is set to standards based on levels in breast milk.

The AAP recommends iron-fortified formulas for all infants. Standard formulas contain 20 Kcal/ounce and 0.45 grams of protein/ounce.

Vitamin supplements may be recommended depending on how much formula the infant is taking. Receiving more than the daily requirement of vitamins is unnecessary and potentially harmful. Depending on the water supply, pediatricians may prescribe a fluoride supplement to help the infant develop strong teeth and bones.

You should talk to an experienced dietitian and health care provider if you have a baby with a metabolic problem. The infant's gastointestinal tract and ability to break down food and nutrients may affect your formula choice.

Side Effects    Return to top

Improper mixing of formula is common and may harm the infant. Follow the instructions on the formula container carefully.

Improper mixing may result in abdominal pain, improper caloric intake, or other problems in the baby. Never water down the formula, because that can change your baby's salt balance, which can cause seizures.

Using the wrong type of formula for a special-needs infant may cause the baby's condition to become worse.

Recommendations    Return to top

The AAP recommends that infants be fed formula or breast milk for at least 12 months.

Cow's milk alone is not an appropriate diet for infants because the baby's kidneys may not work as efficiently as an adult's. Cow's milk also has too much protein (and in particular, too much casein, a type of protein). The minerals are not easily absorbed, and there is an increased risk for sensitization to milk proteins. Low-fat and skim milk are also inappropriate for use in the first year of life. They do not provide enough calories for growth or enough of some nutrients needed for normal development.

Formulas based on cow's milk are appropriate for full-term and preterm infants having no special nutritional requirements.


Special formulas should be used only under a health care provider's supervision.

Update Date: 12/1/2008

Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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