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Infant formula is an artificial substitute for human breast milk, intended for consumption by infants. Today, most infant formulas are based on either cow milk or soy milk. Some formulas, for infants with special dietary needs, are highly modified and may contain neither cow milk nor soy.

A 2001 World Health Organisation (WHO) report found that infant formula prepared in accordance with applicable Codex Alimentarius standards is a nutritionally adequate and safe complementary food and a suitable breast milk substitute. Nonetheless, with few exceptions the WHO report recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life.

Infant formula is necessarily an imperfect approximation of breast milk because:

  • The exact chemical properties of breast milk are still unknown.
  • A mother's breast milk changes in response to the feeding habits of her baby and over time, thus adjusting to the infant's individual growth and development.
  • Breast milk includes a mother's antibodies that help the baby avoid or fight off infections and give his immature immune system the benefit of his mother's immune system that has many years of experience with the germs common in their environment.

Three types of formula

The three forms of formula -- powders, concentrates, and ready-to-use -- are based on different ingredients:

Milk-based baby formulas Made with cow’s milk, vegetable oils (for fat calories), vitamins, and minerals -- and usually iron-fortified (as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics) -- milk-based formulas are appropriate for healthy, full-term babies.

Soy-based baby formulas Made with soy protein, vegetable oils, corn syrup and/or sucrose (for carbohydrates), and sometimes iron, these formulas are good for babies with lactose intolerance who can’t take milk-based formulas, or those who have allergies to the whole protein in cow’s milk or are on a vegetarian-based diet. Soy infant formulas aren’t recommended for low-birth-weight or preterm babies.

Specialty baby formulas This is a big category, with infant formulas for low-birth-weight babies, low-sodium formulas for babies who need a restricted salt intake, and "predigested" protein formulas for babies who can’t tolerate or have allergies to the whole proteins in cow’s milk and milk-based formulas.

Infant formulas enriched with DHA and ARA omega fatty acids from algae have also found their way into the jam-packed baby formula aisle. These fatty acids appear to help baby's brain and nerve development and improve vision. (Source: WebMD)