Infant Formula

Last Updated September 2022 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Robert "Chuck" Rich, Jr., MD, FAAFP

Breast milk is the best source of nutrition for your baby. However, some women are unable to or choose not to breastfeed. In these cases, baby formulas are an option. Infant formulas are specially made to meet babies’ nutritional needs. If you plan to use formula, here are some important tips to make it work for you and your baby.

Path to improved health

Your family doctor will probably recommend a formula made from cow’s milk. Some formulas are iron fortified. This means they have extra iron in them. Some formulas have little or no iron at all. Most doctors recommend using an iron-fortified formula.

Some formulas are made from soy milk instead of cow’s milk. If your baby seems to be allergic to formula made from cow’s milk, your doctor may suggest using a soy milk formula.

If you’re not breastfeeding, use infant formula during the first year of your baby’s life. Regular cow’s milk and regular soy milk are not the same as infant formula made from cow’s milk or from soy milk. Regular cow’s milk and regular soy milk do not contain all the nutrients that your baby needs to grow and develop. Babies younger than one who drink regular cow’s milk or regular soy milk are at risk for problems associated with low iron.

How much infant formula

Your doctor will give you an idea of how much to feed your baby when you first start using formula. Most babies need 2.5 ounces of formula per pound of body weight each day. This means that an eight-pound baby may drink about 20 ounces of formula a day. However, this is just an estimate. It is important to pay attention to your baby’s cues. Other than crying, signs that your baby may be hungry include smacking their lips, sucking and rooting (turning their head toward your hand when you touch their face).

Feed your baby as often as they want to be fed. It could be more in the beginning. This may be 8 to 12 times a day. Your baby may want to be fed less often as they grow and can take more formula at each feeding. How often your baby wants to eat will change as they go through growth spurts. Growth spurts typically occur at about 2 and 6 weeks of age. It can happen again at about 3 and 6 months of age.

Your baby is probably getting enough formula if they:

  • Act satisfied after each feeding
  • Gain weight regularly after the first 3 to 7 days following birth (Your baby may lose a little weight during the first week after being born.)
  • Have about 6 to 8 wet diapers a day
  • Have about 2 to 5 or more stools a day at first (This will fall to 2 or fewer stools a day as your baby grows. Your baby’s stools will be runny when you start formula.)

Baby formula is sold in several forms:

  • Ready-to-use:This is the most expensive kind of formula, but no mixing is necessary.
  • Concentrated liquid:This is a less expensive formula. You mix the liquid formula with an equal part of water.
  • Powder:This is the least expensive formula. You mix one level scoop of powdered formula with two ounces of water and stir well.

Most times, you can feed your baby a bottle without warming it first. It is okay for the formula to be cool or room temperature. If your baby seems to prefer warm formula, you can put the filled bottle in a container of warm water and let it stand for a few minutes. Test the warmth of the formula by putting a few drops on your wrist before giving the bottle to your baby.

Things to consider

The most important thing to know when giving your baby formula is to follow the directions on the formula container. Measure carefully and never add extra water to the formula. You also should wash your hands before preparing the formula.

If you use well water or if there are problems with the water in your town, boil the water first. You also can use bottled water. If you boil the water, let it cool off before mixing it with the formula. Always use a clean cup to measure the water.

Sometimes it may be necessary to change the kind of formula you give your baby. If your baby is always fussy, needs more iron, or has certain food allergies, your doctor may suggest changing your baby’s formula to a different kind. Some of the signs that your baby is intolerant to the type of formula you’re feeding them are:

  • Excessive crying or fussiness after a feeding
  • Extra gas
  • Very loose, watery stools (This is not always related to formulas. If you are concerned about your baby’s stool habits, the color, or consistency, talk with your doctor before changing your baby’s formula.)
  • Dry, red, and scaly skin
  • Extreme fatigue or weakness
  • Forceful vomiting

Never give your baby hot formula. Check the temperature of the formula by placing a few drops on your skin to be sure it isn’t too hot before feeding it to your baby. The formula should only be lukewarm. Never heat bottles in the microwave. Microwaves heat foods and liquids unevenly. This can cause hot spots in the formula that can burn your baby.

Sterilize (clean) bottles and nipples before you use them for the first time. You can do this by putting them in boiling water for five minutes. After that first time, you probably don’t need to sterilize them again. Instead, wash bottles, nipples and caps in hot, soapy water. Rinse them carefully to remove any soap residue. You can also run them through the dishwasher, which kills more germs than washing by hand.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How long should I try to breastfeed before starting formula?
  • Can formula help minimize food and other allergies?
  • Should I be concerned about formula recalls?
  • Is it okay to give my child formula after the age of 1?

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: How Much and How Often to Feed Infant Formula

U.S. Food & Drug Administration: Questions & Answers for Consumers Concerning Infant Formula

U.S. National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus: Infant Formulas Overview