Skip to main content

Health Encyclopedia

Search the Health Encyclopedia

Infant formulas - overview


During the first 4 to 6 months of life, infants need only breast milk or formula to meet all their nutritional needs. Infant formulas include powders, concentrated liquids, and ready-to-use forms.

Alternative Names

Formula feeding; Bottle feeding

Food Sources

There are different formulas available for infants younger than 12 months old who are not drinking breast milk. While there are some differences, infant formulas sold in the United States have all the nutrients babies need to grow and thrive.


Babies need iron in their diet. It's best to use a formula fortified with iron, unless your child's doctor says not to.

Standard cow's milk-based formulas:

  • Almost all babies do well on cow's milk-based formulas.
  • These formulas are made with cow's milk protein that has been changed to be more like breast milk. They contain lactose (a type of sugar in milk) and minerals from the cow's milk.
  • Vegetable oils, plus other minerals and vitamins are also in the formula.
  • Fussiness and colic are common problems for all babies. Most of the time, cow's milk formulas are not the cause of these symptoms. This means that you likely do not need to switch to a different formula if your baby is fussy. If you're not sure, talk with your infant's doctor.

Soy-based formulas:

  • These formulas are made using soy proteins. They do not contain lactose.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests using cow's milk-based formulas when possible rather than soy-based formulas.
  • For parents who do not want their child to eat animal protein, the AAP recommends breastfeeding. Soy-based formulas are also an option.
  • Soy-based formulas have NOT been proven to help with milk allergies or colic. Babies who are allergic to cow's milk may also be allergic to soy milk.
  • Soy-based formulas should be used for infants with galactosemia, a rare condition. These formulas can also be used for babies who can't digest lactose, which is uncommon in children younger than 12 months.

Hypoallergenic formulas (protein hydrolysate formulas):

  • This type of formula may be helpful for infants who have allergies to milk protein and for those with skin rashes or wheezing caused by allergies.
  • Hypoallergenic formulas are generally much more expensive than regular formulas.

Lactose-free formulas:

  • These formulas are also used for galactosemia and for children who can't digest lactose.
  • A child who has an illness with diarrhea usually will not need lactose-free formula.

There are special formulas for babies with certain health problems. Your pediatrician will let you know if your baby needs a special formula. DO NOT give these unless your pediatrician recommends it.

  • Reflux formulas are pre-thickened with rice starch. They are usually needed only for infants with reflux who are not gaining weight or who are very uncomfortable.
  • Formulas for premature and low-birth-weight infants have extra calories and minerals to meet the needs of these infants.
  • Special formulas may be used for infants with heart disease, malabsorption syndromes, and problems digesting fat or processing certain amino acids.

Newer formulas with no clear role:

  • Toddler formulas are offered as added nutrition for toddlers who are picky eaters. To date, they have not been shown to be better than whole milk and multivitamins. They are also expensive.

Most formulas can be purchased in the following forms:

  • Ready-to-use. Do not need to add water; convenient, but cost more.
  • Concentrated liquid formulas. Need to be mixed with water, cost less.
  • Powdered formulas. Must be mixed with water, cost the least.


The AAP recommends that all infants be fed breast milk or iron-fortified formula for at least 12 months.

Your baby will have a slightly different feeding pattern depending on whether she is breastfed or formula fed.

In general, breastfed babies tend to eat more often.

Formula-fed babies may need to eat about 6 to 8 times per day.

  • Start newborns with 2 to 3 ounces (60 to 90 milliliters) of formula per feeding (for a total of 16 to 24 ounces or 480 to 720 milliliters per day).
  • As with breastfeeding, the number of feedings will decrease as the baby gets older, but the amount of formula will increase to approximately 6 to 8 ounces (180 to 240 milliliters) per feeding.
  • At 4 to 6 months of age, an infant should be consuming 28 to 45 ounces (840 to 1350 milliliters) of formula and is often ready to start the transition to solid foods.

Infant formula can be used until a child is 1 year old. The AAP does not recommend regular cow's milk for children under 1 year old. After 1 year, the child should only get whole milk, not skim or reduced-fat milk.

Standard formulas contain 20 Kcal/ounce or 20 Kcal/30 milliliters and 0.45 grams of protein/ounce or 0.45 grams of protein/30 milliliters. Formulas based on cow's milk are appropriate for most full-term and preterm infants.

Infants who drink enough formula and are gaining weight usually do not need extra vitamins or minerals. Your doctor or nurse may prescribe extra fluoride if the formula is being made with water that has not been fluorinated.


Labiner-Wolfe J, Fein SB, Shealy KR. Infant formula - handling education and safety. Pediatrics. 2008;122 Suppl 2:S85-S90. PMID: 18829836

O'Connor NR. Infant formula. Am Fam Physician. 2009;79:565-70. PMID: 19378873

Stettler N, Bhatia J, Parish A, Stallings VA. Feeding healthy infants, children, and adolescents. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 42.

Review Date:5/11/2015
Reviewed By:Liora C Adler, MD, Pediatric ER, Joe DiMaggio Childeren’s Hospital, Hollywood, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997-A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

The Agency for Health Care Administration (Agency) and this website do not claim the information on, or referred to by, this site is error free. This site may include links to websites of other government agencies or private groups. Our Agency and this website do not control such sites and are not responsible for their content. Reference to or links to any other group, product, service, or information does not mean our Agency or this website approves of that group, product, service, or information.

Additionally, while health information provided through this website may be a valuable resource for the public, it is not designed to offer medical advice. Talk with your doctor about medical care questions you may have.

Outcome Data

No data available for this condition/procedure.

Health Encyclopedia

More Features

We Appreciate Your Feedback!
1. Did you find this information useful?
2. Would you recommend this website to family and friends?