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Infant Formula 101

First and foremost, as a registered dietitian and mother of three, I support breastfeeding as the ideal source of nutrition for infants. In my practice, I recommend for new mothers to breastfeed exclusively for at least 6 months and to continue breastfeeding with complementary solids until 1 year of age. Research supports the long list of breastfeeding benefits to Mom and baby. Simply put, human milk cannot be duplicated. It is rich in nutrients, easily digestible, full of antibodies and growth factors, and best of all, it's free!

That said, there are situations in which infant formula is necessary to either supplement an infant's nutrition or to serve as the sole source of nutrients. For these cases, I've put together a crash course in infant formula.

  • Infant formula is safe for consumption from birth to 12 months of age. The majority of infant formulas are iron-fortified and all of them meet the requirements of the Infant Formula Act for calories, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and trace elements. Infant formula is closely regulated by the FDA.
  • Formula comes in powder, concentrate, and ready-to-feed options. Powder and concentrate forms will come with preparation instructions which should be followed carefully. Each form of formula will also indicate food safe storage. Generic brands are typically half the cost of national brands, but will deliver the same nutrition. Of note, some infant formulas now include prebiotics. There is much research yet to be done in this area to determine the safety and efficacy of this addition.
  • Standard infant formulas are cow's milk-based. These contain around 45% carbohydrate, 8-9% protein, and just under 50% calories from fat. Typically there are twenty calories per ounce of prepared formula.
  • Soy-based formulas are also available and account for nearly one-quarter of the market share. Soy milk is typically prescribed to infants who do not metabolize carbohydrates correctly or who have trouble digesting lactose. However, what has helped the popularity of soy-based formulas grow is parental preference for a vegetarian or vegan diet. Of note, nearly 40% of infants with a cow's milk allergy will also have a soy allergy so often times the pediatrician will prescribe another specialty formula instead.
Beyond these two types of formulas, there are specialty formulas for other conditions. Certain formulas incorporate added rice starch for infants who are prone to spitting up. Other formulas modify the source of protein or fat to aid digestion for infants with acute or chronic conditions. Premature infants receive higher calorie formulas in the hospital to promote weight gain and adequate development and are often kept on higher nutrient-dense formulas after discharge from the hospital to support continued growth.

The infant formula world can be overwhelming, but it gets easier with a little bit of research. When in doubt, utilize manufacturers' websites to find answers to your questions.

Tanya Zuckerbrot, MS, RD is a nutritionist and founder of www.SkinnyintheCity.com. She is also the creator of The F-Factor DietaC/, an innovative nutritional program she has used for more than ten years to provide hundreds of her clients with all the tools they need to achieve easy weight loss and maintenance, improved health and well-being. For more information log onto www.FFactorDiet.com.

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