Which baby formula is healthiest?
Post Updated April 2017
Which is the healthiest baby formula and which ones you should avoid?
This is the question every mum who finds themselves unable to breastfeed wrestles with. It’s never a decision made lightly. Careful thought and consideration goes into what you put into your little one’s mouth.
It’s horrendous when you can’t breastfeed. I remember vividly, sitting in my newborn’s room at 5am after a terrible night of him crying – hungry – and me not having enough breast milk for him. Exhausted, I was full of guilt and self-blame. Maybe I was still doing it wrong, maybe I just had to try harder, maybe if I could relax it would come. I tried in vain to help him attach, he was quiet for a moment, trying to suck the little milk that was there.
My cracked nipples were raw from our attempts to feed successfully and the pain was almost unbearable. My bit my lip as he sucked and tears streamed down my face. In the days to come, we tried EVERYTHING from nipple protectors, lactation consultants, everything I could devour on the internet, mum’s advice and every herbal remedy. I was pumping between feeds (which after 45 mins would get me a measly 15mL if I was lucky). We also had my son’s tongue tie cut even though everyone said it wasn’t the problem. But it was all useless.
He was starving and I couldn’t breastfeed him.
I’ve never failed at anything before. It’s a hollow feeling when you can’t feed your baby and you know that breast milk is best. It’s an overwhelming combination of self-blame, inadequacy, guilt, shame, failure and hopelessness. It’s lonely too, with a hungry, crying baby and a decision only you as a mother can make: to start giving your baby formula.
The first time my husband made a bottle and gave it to me to feed our son I’ll never forget. He gulped it down and was silent. For the first time in his little life he was satisfied. It was such a relief for me that I burst into tears. I silently thanked the universe that I had a supportive husband and the strength to make the hard decision to start formula feeding when all the experts said I should continue breastfeeding. Within days, he began putting on weight for the first time and he was so settled I felt more confident in my decision.
Why choosing a healthy baby formula is so important
When I first wrote this guide back in 2014, I’d been asked by other new mums and their friends about which infant formula I’d chosen and why. When I began talking about gut health and why it’s vital you get a formula that’s as close as possible to breast milk AND one that is as free from nasty ingredients as possible they stared blankly at me. Why, they asked?
The thing no-one tells you when you fall pregnant is the way your baby’s gut develops in the first few months after birth is absolutely essential to their long term health. Even the way they’re born has a huge impact on their gut health.
Did you know that babies born via c-section have very different gut flora to those born vaginally. These differences in the way their gut flora develops contributes to increased risk of allergy, asthma and eczema in babies born through cesarean. Fascinating, right?
The same goes for formula-fed babies vs breast-fed babies. When your baby is born, his or her gut is completely sterile. Whether you breastfeed or bottle feed will determine what bacteria live in their gut. I’m going to go ahead and assume you want your baby’s gut to be as healthy as possible. That means they would have bifidobacteria infantis in their gut from birth and then from about 6 months, starting to introduce other types of probiotics like Lactobacillus Rhamnosus which specifically protects against developing eczema… which bottle fed babies are more prone to… are you starting to see connections too?
Researchers are focusing more and more on the gut microbiome (aka probiotics and bacteria in your gut) and finding out that it is VERY important to your health. They’ve found that “factors in breast milk influence the gut microbiota, which in turn sets up the immune system to have fewer chronic illnesses later in life.” (Read the full article here.)
As you can see from my comparison chart of baby formulas, not many formulas contain pre or probiotics which leaves me wondering, if you don’t add them in separately (like I did with my boys) how are these babies’ digestive and immune systems actually developing?!
How to choose the healthiest infant formula for your baby
This guide will help you sort out what ingredients are important to look for when choosing a baby formula and what ingredients you should avoid.
Before we dive in, there’s some details to mention so I don’t receive emails from probably well-meaning but confused individuals:
- I believe breastfeeding is the healthiest option for your baby.
- There are times when you cannot breastfeed no matter how hard you try.
- Your baby’s health is your number one priority.
- I’m not advocating formula feeding over breastfeeding.
- I’m writing to help those who need to use formula. To offer support and guidance to choose the healthiest baby formula they can.
- Just to reiterate: I am not suggesting that formula is healthier than breastfeeding.
- The purpose of this article is not to discuss the virtues of different types of milk – cow’s, soy, lactose-free etc.
- Brands I’ve analysed are all starter formulas for infants from birth. See end of post for full list.
There is not much information about the ingredients of Australian infant formulas and where they come from. Most have similar levels of vitamins and minerals but that’s not what we’re concerned with when it comes to the “healthiness” of baby formula.
Your guide to choosing the healthiest baby formula
Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Choosing a baby formula takes a lot of research – which I’ve done for you – you’re welcome 🙂 and I’m most concerned with making sure the product meets the following 7 standards:
Q1: Does the product contain genetically-modified (GM) ingredients?
Why it matters: we don’t know the long term effects of GM foods on our health. We don’t know if they contribute to illnesses or health conditions. The only brands that are GM-free Bellamy’s Organic Formula and Holle Organic Infant Formula.
Q2: Does the formula have harmful ingredients?
Why it matters: some infant formulas contain corn syrup and other ingredients known to cause liver dysfunction and obesity. Thankfully, these aren’t found usually in Australian baby formulas.
Q3: What is the percentage of whey vs casein in the formula?
Why it matters: human breast milk is around 60% whey and 40% casein. Cow’s milk is 40% whey and 60% casein. This means it needs to be changed before consumed by infants, they can’t digest it in its natural form. Look for the word “hydrolysed” in the ingredients’ lists. It means the milk protein casein particles are made much smaller and easier to digest.
Bellamys Organic Infant Formula, a2 Platinum, Aptamil Gold +, and Karicare Plus use this naturally occurring 60:40 ratio.
Q4: What vegetable oils are used and where they come from?
Why it matters: vegetable oils are added to baby formula products because they contain fatty acids which are naturally found in breast milk. We need fatty acids for healthy development of our brain, eyes and just about every cell in our body.
Avoid canola oil if you can because it is predominantly grown as genetically modified (GM) canola and we don’t have enough information about the long term effects of GM foods. Soy is a GM product unless labelled otherwise.
Some of them use palm oil and I’ve contacted each company to find out whether it’s from a sustainable source or not because everyone love orangutans! If you don’t know what I’m talking about google “why is palm oil bad” and educate yourself on what’s happening to poor things.
It should be noted that soy oil contains no cholesterol which may seem like a good thing, except for the fact that infants need cholesterol to produce hormones and neurotransmitters.
Brands that use a non-GM oil – Bellamys Organic Infant Formula and Holle Organic.
Q5: Does the formula contain DHA or AA and what are the sources?
Why it matters: there’s some controversy surrounding the addition of DHA and AA (which are essential fats) in infant formula. I didn’t understand this at first as DHA is necessary for your baby’s developing brain. When I found out that it was because the DHA is produced using a potential neurotoxin – hexane – I understood. Eww.
Luckily, there’s two simple and healthy solutions to make sure your baby gets the nutrients their brain needs:
- You can simply add good quality liquid fish oil separately and more safely to your baby formula. I did this with both my babies and recommend it to other mums looking to supplement their baby formula. It’s important to know that you can only do this if your formula does NOT include DHA or AA already.
The only brand to not include DHA and AA is Bellamys Organic Infant Formula.
- You can choose a formula that uses DHA from a safe fish oil source instead.
The only brand to use a fish oil based DHA is Opti-Gold Infant (can’t buy it online).
Q6: Does the baby formula contain any prebiotics or probiotics?
Why it matters: as I mentioned above, good probiotic bacteria is vital for your baby’s gut development and affects their long term health into adulthood (amazing it has such a long term impact!) so it’s really a no-brainer to get a formula with pre-/probiotics or add some in to your chosen baby formula like I did.
The brands that include either prebiotics or probiotics are: A2 Platinum, Aptamil Gold +, Aptamil Profutura, Blackmores Newborn, Nan Comfort 1 and Nan Pro Gold.
Q7: Do you need to add anything to the baby formula to make it more like breast milk?
Why it matters: sometimes, like in the above question, it’s important to add something after the formula is made because it’s safer. Other times, it’s about making your baby formula as close to breast milk as possible. This means adding DHA (if you choose a formula without DHA and AA) and adding probiotics. Find out which ones I recommend here. Probiotics are found in breast milk but are not often added to baby formulas. As we’ve mentioned already, good bacteria are crucial to your baby’s gut development and overall health so it’s an important factor to add to your formula to give your baby the best start possible.
Notes on a few other types of formula
There are several other types of formula and hopefully you never need to know these. But if you are looking for one of these, I recommend you speak to your pediatrician and GP to work out if one of these speciality formulas is appropriate for your baby. These should not be used without talking to your GP or pediatrician first.
- Cow’s milk alternative formulas – there are a range of non-cow’s milk formulas on the market including goat’s milk and soy based formulas.
- Anti-reflux formulas – these formulas contain thickening agents to help relieve symptoms of reflux and silent reflux in infants.
- Lactose-free formulas – for babies allergic to lactose
- Other speciality formulas – there are a few different products like ‘anti-constipation’ and ‘anti-colic’ etc. For example, Neocate is a pharmacy brand of hypoallergenic formulas.
So which baby formula did I choose for my little one?
My younger son, Jesse had silent reflux and I had to put him on Aptamil Gold AR+ along with herbal medicine at each feed to calm his symptoms and allow him to feed without screaming and vomiting for hours… but that’s a story for another day. 🙂
If you are in the unfortunate position of needing a healthy baby formula for your infant, it’s okay. I’ve been there and it’s awful. But you’ll get through it and your baby will grow up healthy and happy. Healthy development and growth are vital in the early months of life (to a large extent before we’re born as well!) and choosing a formula wisely can benefit the long term health of your child.
An important note to finish on: if your baby doesn’t agree with your chosen formula, please change it! Regardless of whether it’s healthier or not, your baby needs to be able to easily digest and absorb the nutrients in their food. This was the situation I found myself in with Jesse and after I changed the formula and begun using some drops of herbal medicine, I was able to keep him off antacids and he was much happier after feeds.
I hope this article helps you in your search for a healthy baby formula for your little one. Click here to download my formula feeding resources with all the dosage instructions and brand names of the products I recommend.
Remember, you and your baby deserve to be healthy.
Image credit: Kate Dalgleish
Which formulas did I research?
Aptamil Gold +
Aptamil Gold + HA
Bellamys Organic Infant Formula
Blackmores Newborn Formula
Heinz Nuture Gold
Heinz Nuture Original
Holle Organic Infant Formula
Nan H.A.1 Gold
Nan OptiPro HA
Nan Pro Gold
Nature’s Way Kids Smart
Opti-Gold Infant Formula
S-26 Newborn Gold
S-26 Gold Comfort
SMA Baby Formula