What is formula?
Formula is a breast milk substitute made from a special dried-milk powder. Most infant formula is made from cow’s milk, vitamins and minerals. Formula is mixed with cooled boiled water and fed to babies in a bottle or cup.
The nutrients in formula support a baby’s growth during their first 6 months. Once they reach 6 months, they can start eating solids as well, but a baby should not drink regular cow’s milk until they are at least 12 months old.
The main sources of protein in formula come from cow’s milk. Formula also includes fat from vegetable oils to support a baby’s growth.
Some formulas have sources other than cow’s milk, such as soybeans or rice. These specialty formulas have been altered so they are easier to digest or are suitable for babies who cannot tolerate cow’s-milk protein or lactose. Specialty formulas should only be used under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
How is formula different from breast milk?
Formula is a nutritionally complete food for babies. Many formula products contain extra ingredients so that they more closely match breast milk.
One of the main differences between formula and breast milk is that breast milk contains antibodies, which help protect the baby against a range of illnesses. The nutrition in breast milk adapts over the baby’s lifespan, unlike formula whose nutritional content stays the same.
Breast milk also has less protein than formula. Choosing a formula with less protein will reduce your baby’s risk of becoming overweight or obese as they get older.
Why might I give my baby formula?
There are many reasons why formula might be the best option for you and your baby. Not all women can breastfeed: some may be unable to produce enough milk for their baby’s needs while others may have a health condition or take medication that prevents them from breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding problems can be challenging and may even mean it’s unrealistic some women to continue.
Other women choose not to breastfeed, or they may not always be with their baby, such as when they are returning to work.
Some women may not breastfeed if they have experienced sexual abuse that involved their breasts since this can trigger trauma. Understandably, mothers may not share this as the reason why they feed their baby formula.
What are the different types of baby formula?
All formula sold in Australia needs to meet stringent nutritional and hygiene standards. Most baby formulas are made from dried cow's milk with vitamins, minerals and vegetable oils added. Straight cow's milk is not suitable for a baby's digestion, unless it has been altered to make it easy to digest and so the nutrients can be absorbed.
There are 3 types of formula:
- Milk-based formulas are made from cow's milk, with added vegetable oils, iron, vitamins and minerals.
- Soy-based formulas are made from soybeans and have added vegetable oils and nutrients.
- Specialty formulas are made from cow's milk which has been 'predigested' and the protein removed or reduced. There is also a range of hypoallergenic formulas available. Most specialty formulas are designed for babies who have a milk intolerance or who are allergic to cow's milk. Formula might also be the best choice for babies who have a food protein allergy or other form of digestive, malabsorption or gut problem. Specialty formulas can be used for specific cultural or religious reasons too.
Other types of formula include:
- Stage 1 or starter formulas: These are suitable for babies aged up to 6 months. After this age, Stage 2 or follow-on formulas are recommended since they often have a higher iron content. However, there is no significant benefit in changing to these later-stage formulas.
- Anti-reflux or AR formulas: These have a thickener added that helps to keep the milk in the baby's stomach and reduce the likelihood of reflux.
- Some formulas have added compounds: Manufacturers claim these make the formula more like breast milk. But this doesn't mean the baby's body can digest or absorb these compounds in the same way as they would if they were breastfed. Prebiotics, probiotics and antioxidants are common examples or additives, as are long chain polyunsaturated (LCP) acids.
Can babies be allergic to formula?
Some babies are particularly sensitive or allergic to cow’s milk-based formula. Generally, the protein in cow’s milk causes them to react. Hydrolysed formula is often recommended as an alternative. Hydrolysed formula contains cow’s milk protein that has been broken down into smaller particles.
There are a range of specialised formulas that suit babies with a cow’s milk allergy or soy formula allergy. These alternatives can be expensive, though. Speak with your GP or baby’s paediatrician about getting a prescription for a specialty formula since this can significantly reduce its cost.
How to tell when your baby is hungry?
It can be hard to know for sure when a baby is hungry or if there is something else causing them to fuss. Sometimes you won't know for sure that they're hungry until they're offered a bottle.
Most babies usually cry when they are hungry. Placing the teat of the bottle in their mouth will calm them and they will start sucking.
Try to position your baby in your arms as you would if you were breastfeeding. Hold them close, look into their eyes and be sensitive to their cues or signals.
They suck and swallow in a coordinated way. They may look as if they're concentrating on feeding, their hands are clenched and their whole body looks like it's focused on sucking. As they fill up, their hands relax and their body becomes more relaxed.
Breastfed babies regulate their own milk intake. They suck when they're hungry and stop sucking when they're full. In comparison, formula-fed babies aren't as much in control of how much milk they drink — this is managed by the person offering the bottle.
When your baby has had enough, they will usually pull away from the teat to let you know they are full.
Sometimes you may notice that their sucking slows down and they have longer pauses between sucks.
Other ways your baby might show you they have had enough could be milk starting to pool in their mouth or they may vomit or 'spill' some milk.
Some babies might fuss after having a feed or might go to sleep.
Step-by-step guide to preparing formula
- Read the information on the container the formula comes in to make sure you understand how much water and how many scoops you need to combine.
- Wash and dry your hands well.
- Make sure you have a clean surface and area where you can prepare the formula.
- Boil fresh tap water in a kettle or on the stove. Let the water cool to room temperature or until it’s lukewarm. Fresh, plain and unopened bottled water, (not natural or sparkling mineral or soda water) can be used to prepare formula.
- Pour the water into already-sterilised bottles. Make sure you’re using the correct amount of water for your baby’s needs.
- You can store the sealed bottles of water in the main part of the fridge for up to 24 hours. Just before your baby’s feed you can add the correct number of formula scoops.
- Only use the scoop that came with the formula’s container and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Fill the scoop so it’s loose and level. Don’t over or under-fill the scoop. Fill each scoop from the centre of the tin and level it off with the lid edge or a clean, sterilised knife.
- Tap the bottle on the bench so the formula powder settles into the water.
- Seal the bottle with the teat and screw cap. Shake well until all the formula is well dissolved in the water.
- Test the temperature of the formula on your wrist before offering it to your baby.
Preparation and hygiene
Make up each bottle as your baby needs to be fed. If you do need to store formula, place it towards the back of the refrigerator where the temperature is coldest.
Only use bottles and feeding equipment that have been washed and sterilised.
Throw away any formula that has been warmed but not finished within one hour. Don’t store partially empty bottles of formula. Formula and bottles become contaminated once the baby has had a feed from them.
Always make up formula according to the instructions on the tin. If the formula is made too weak, it can cause poor growth and the baby will be hungry. If it is too strong it can lead to constipation and the baby becoming overweight.
If you’re going out, transport the cooled, boiled water and formula powder separately. Mix the two just before feeding. Otherwise, keep the prepared formula cold in an ‘esky’ (cold storage container), baby bottle pack or cold bag.
Never warm formula in a microwave. This can cause the milk to heat unevenly and lead to burns. Instead, warm up each bottle in a jug of hot water. Bottle warmers are a safe option as long as they have a thermostat control and the bottle isn’t left in the warmer for longer than 10 minutes.
Where can I get more information about feeding my baby formula?
Every baby has their own unique feeding needs, so if you’re unsure about how much formula to offer your baby, check with your child health nurse. They will guide you on the correct amount for your baby’s age and weight.
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: September 2021