An overview to making an educated choice about formula

Star and I worked together on this post as a result of seeing a need to answer some questions and provide information on infant formula.  I believe that breastfeeding advocates and educators often provide only “formula is bad” kind of information that isn’t helpful for the parent that seriously needs to consider formula options for their child.  This article is intended to be a resource for those that will be using formula and would like information as they go about making their decision and for those that want to offer genuinely supportive support to all families, regardless of the feeding method employed.  There will be further information on formula available soon but for now, we hope this is helpful for those that need it.  It is my hope that breastfeeding advocates and educators will be able to provide quality information on formula when necessary and do so in a supportive manner.  Let’s truly support families and be a safe source of information on infant nutrition, free of judgment and profit-making agendas.  If you are a breastfeeding mom that needs to supplement with formula or switch entirely over to formula, be sure to consult not only with your child’s doctor but also an IBCLC in making your formula choice.  ~Jessica 

What are the questions and why do we need to look at them

Babies and breastmilk go together perfectly.  Breastmilk is the optimal, normal standard of infant nutrition, and I love the fact that I am in a profession where I can help mothers to achieve their goals where breastfeeding is concerned.  While I am a hugely passionate breastfeeding advocate I am not anti-formula.  Something that seems to confuse some people but it boils down to respecting the fact that we all make choices in feeding our babies, and sometimes formulas are a part of that choice.  Formula feeding moms love their babies just as much as breastfeeding moms do and want their babies to grow and thrive.  During some hiccups in my own breastfeeding relationships, I used commercial infant formulas as a supplement and I am thoroughly unashamed of that fact.  However, formula can be such a dirty word in infant feeding communities, and there’s a lot of confusion over it.  What kinds are there?  Which formulas are better than others?  Should I use commercially made formulas or make my own?  And how do we mix them?

 

The different types of formula

First of all, let’s address the varieties of formula.  There are three major types that are available: cow’s milk based formulas, soy formulas, and protein hydrolysate formulas.  Cow’s milk is the least expensive and most common.  They are nutritionally appropriate for most babies and engineered to be as close as possible to breastmilk recognizing they can not completely replicate all that is breastmilk.  However, some babies may not do well on these.  Some common reasons for not using cow’s milk formulas are allergies to the protein in the cow’s milk or the family’s desire to avoid animal products for their babies.

The next variety of formula is soy.  Soy formulas are not recommended for preemies.  They do not contain animal proteins, so they are useful in some medical situations or if a baby has issues with those proteins.  They can also be used by families who adhere to a lifestyle that avoids animal products.  A review by the AAP in 2008 found very few medical reasons to utilize soy formula.  There are also concerns that soy could interfere with the thyroid, immune system, or the reproductive system.  Those concerns have not yet been proven to be warranted, although the AAP did advocate for further testing.  Bottom line?  Unless your baby needs soy formula or you have some family reason that you are choosing to avoid animal products, it is probably not necessary.

The last of the three major commercial varieties is the protein hydrolysate formula.  These are also called hypoallergenic formulas.  Really, these will generally be ordered by a doctor to combat an issue like allergies to both the soy and the cow’s milk formulas.  Most people aren’t buying these over the counter because they’re just such an amazing choice.  They’re typically very expensive and needed only in specific cases.

 

Standards and regulations

Formula is held to certain standards of nutrition by the FDA.  (Note: this is different than being approved or regulated by the FDA.  However, there are standards of nutrition that must be met or the FDA will take action.)  Therefore, there is typically not significant difference between generic and name brand formulas of the same type.  There are pretty negligible differences between organic and nonorganic formulas, too.  Basically, with organic formulas, there is a certain standard for the production of the ingredients in the formulas.  Organic formulas have not been proven to be better for babies.  They are sometimes sweetened with organic cane sugar, which can make them taste sweeter.  This might be a problem – babies could develop a taste for sweeter foods or overeat due to the taste – but these are theories that have not been proven with peer reviewed research.

Homemade formulas are touted by many people and websites, but they are not something that I would ever recommend to a client or anyone else, for that matter.  There absolutely are risks associated with feeding an infant commercial formula, but there are even more risks to non-commercial formula.  No health body that I’m aware of recommends homemade formulas.  With commercial formula, you are getting something that is built to have the most optimal nutrition possible when breastmilk is not an option.  With homemade formula, there are a plethora of risks, running from nutritional imbalances to severe infections from pathogens in the ingredients.  In the days before commercialized formula, babies had to be supplemented with other things to keep away conditions like scurvy and there were deaths due to babies ingesting contaminated products.  Do it yourself is awesome for cleaning products or baby food or many other things.  It’s not good for your baby, though.  This is particularly true in a young baby with an immature gut, or digestive tract where the risk of illness from contaminated formula is even higher.  This post takes a thorough look at goat’s milk and homemade formula as alternatives for infant nutrition if you’d like more information.

 

Preparation and safe handling

Preparation of commercialized formula can be a problem, too. We often think that women in developing countries where there is unsafe water or not enough money to purchase the correct quantity of formulas are the ones at risk of incorrect preparation.  Of course, that does happen.  But we also see preparation issues in developed countries, too.  We may not hear about them as often but they certainly occur.

The only kind of formula that is sterile and can pretty much be put in a bottle, heated, and be good to go is ready to feed liquid formula.  Some health organizations recommend that babies under 3 months be fed only ready to feed for this reason.  However, most people use powdered infant formula.  Powdered infant formula is not sterile.  If you have a baby with immune system issues, or an ill baby, it is preferable to use ready to feed.  Using powdered formula in the right way can really help to make it safer.  You want to prepare formula on a clean surface, with freshly washed hands, and put it in clean, sterile equipment.  The World Health Organization recommends that you use water that has been boiled and then allowed to cool for no more than 30 minutes.  You should mix this water with the powdered formula (the EXACT AMOUNT called for on the can.  There are generally scoops with the formulas, and you should use the correct amount of level scoops) and then cool it to a suitable temperature by running the feeding implement (bottle, cup, whatever) under cool/cold water or placing it in cool or cold water.  It should be fed to the baby right away and leftovers should be discarded.  For more information, see the WHO guidelines for the safe preparation, storage, and handling of powdered infant formula.

 

Social issues and real support

Now that we’ve talked about types and preparation – and if I didn’t cover something that you have a burning desire to know about, please, comment or message myself or Jessica and I will find it out for you – let me step on a soapbox for a minute.  We know that breastmilk is optimal nutrition and that formula is recommended by the World Health Organization as the 4th best option for infant nutrition (following milk from the mother’s breast, expressed milk from the mother, and donated milk from another lactating woman).  But we simply cannot go on acting like formula is a poisonous, horrible thing that only uneducated, mean parents feed to their poor defenseless babies.  Some of the horrible comments that I have seen about formula and formula feeding mothers lately are ridiculous.  Would it be awesome if all babies everywhere could get breastmilk, either from their mothers or from donated milk?  Sure.  Is that likely to happen in the not too distant future?  No.  (Look here and here for information on being a donor or if you need donated milk for your baby.)  If we can meet moms where they are and provide the information they are seeking without judgment, we can be a trusted source for education and support and moms won’t have to turn to the formula companies as their primary origin of information.

I am the first person to step up and say that formula should be better regulated, that marketing should be reined in, that we deserve the best possible product for the smallest and most defenseless of our citizens.  But those are issues with the formula companies or manufacturing, not issues with mothers who can’t or won’t breastfeed.  Every mother I have ever met has a wide variety of factors and reasons that came into play when she chose how to feed her baby.  Discounting those things or casting blame or shame on her for them quite frankly sucks.   A real advocate supports women in general and knows that not everyone will make the same choice as her.

 

 
 Star Rodriguiz, IBCLC, is a breastfeeding peer counselor for a WIC in the Midwest and has just started her private practice as an IBCLC (her Facebook page is here, go “like” for great support).  She also sits on the  breastfeeding task force in her town, is helping her  community’s Early Head Start redefine  their breastfeeding support, and is the  driving force behind a local breastfeeding campaign.  In  the remainder of her free  time, she chases around her nursling and preschooler.
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