The FFF Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Formula Feeding: Differences between formulas and bottles

I’ve promised quick and dirty, and instead I’ve delivered Ivory soap-flaked novellas, haven’t I?

Sorry about that. This “chapter” will be as short and to-the-point as I’m capable of.

Two issues I want to cover here: how to pick the right formula, and how to choose the right bottle, for your child. First the easy one….

1. Do different bottles really make a difference?

I’ve raised two primarily bottle-fed babies and yet standing in the bottle aisle still makes my head spin. There are just so many darn choices, and all of them are so… different. I am a sucker for a cool-looking design, so I went for a rather space-age looking set with my younger daughter. Come to find out that space age also means drippy and aggravating.

It really boggles the mind. Anti-colic, anti-gas, with vents and without, glass or BPA-free plastic… But just like there is no one-size-fits-all method of infant feeding, there’s no one-size-fits-all bottle. Even the one that gets the best reviews online may end up being wrong for your particular baby. That’s why it’s hard to say which bottles are the “best”; there was one interesting study conducted by one company which appeared to suggest that their bottles maintain vitamins and antioxidants better than others, but then again, nearly every big-name company claims to be “clinically proven” to lead to less colic or gas. I’d love to see a large-scale, independent study on what bottles really do offer the best health-related benefits, but I’m not aware of any at the moment.

But while we can’t say one is “best” across the board, bottles certainly do differ. Some babies prefer the shapes of certain nipples better, for example (and in fact if you are either combo-feeding or switching from the breast, studies suggest that babies prefer a nipple shape which resembles the mother’s own nipple – this is valuable info for parents of babies who do not transition well). Baby bottles also differ in how much air gets allowed into the bottle by the mechanics of the nipple (this is where all those discs, vents, rings, etc. come into play), which can definitely affect gassy or refluxy babies, at least according to moms I’ve talked to. (For the record, nothing helped my severely refluxy baby, and we tried every bottle on the market. I have a feeling these things make a difference for kids with mild reflux or who are getting gas/discomfort from feeding postures, awkward latches and so forth, but I’m not convinced a bottle can really “cure” a baby with clinical GERD.)

Other than that, bottles differ in how easy they are to clean. The more parts they have, the more aggravated you’ll be at the end of the day when you have 6 bottles to wash and just want to go watch Grey’s Anatomy.

Best advice? Don’t commit to any brand too soon. Before your baby is born, read the reviews online, and choose one to start with. ONLY BUY ONE OR TWO. Don’t make the same mistake I made with the space-age ones and fork out $50 for the 6-bottle set. (Most babies will like whatever they are first exposed to, so if you go for the cheapest BPA-free ones, more power to you.) If your baby likes the bottle you chose, go buy more. If not, try and figure out what he doesn’t like about it. Is the flow too fast? (If so, you may want to see if the company makes a slower nipple; that may solve the problem). Too big? Is the nipple too big for your baby’s mouth? Does it seem like he is swallowing a lot of air, or gulping? Or is the problem on your end – is it an awkward shape for you to hold, or is it drippy?

Sounds lame, but whatever your issue is, Google it. I guarantee you’ll stumble across Babycenter or Facebook threads discussing that very problem, complete with numerous rants and raves about bottles that address your specific concern. Buy one of the bottles you see recommended a lot, and hope for the best. It may take a few tries to find the one that works for you.

You may also want to check out my post on changing nipples and formulas as your baby grows.

2. What are the differences between formulas? Aren’t all formulas the same?

There’s this mythology out there that all formulas are the same. They are not.

Yes, all commercial formulas must meet certain nutritional standards, so all of them will nourish your child. Generics are fine, and there is no reason to pay full price for a name brand if you can get the same result from the cheaper version. But there are indeed differences between brands and types which, although sometimes small, can make a significant difference, especially to a sensitive child.

There are several categories of formula. The first are standard milk-based formulas. Within this category, some manufacturers have different formulas designed for age range – the differences in these is usually that the proteins are a little easier to digest in the newborn version, and there may be more or less of certain vitamins for different age ranges. There are also thickened formulas for reflux, which are just normal, milk-based formulas with added rice starch to help the liquid stay down; and organic versions, which typically use an organic milk source. Not all ingredients in these formulas are organic, however.

While still milk-based, the next category is comprised of “gentle” formulas marketed for babies with sensitive tummies. Depending on the brand, some are made with partially broken down proteins which are easier to digest. Recent studies have suggested that babies fed formulas with these types of protein – called partially hydrolyzed proteins – fare better in a few key ways.So they might be worth considering. You want to look for the words ‘partially hydrolyzed whey or casein” on the label – these are types of milk protein.

Next up, there’s soy formula. There is some question on whether giving babies so much soy protein is a good thing, so these are usually only recommended if a baby is truly lactose intolerant, or allergic to milk protein, or if the parents are vegan. My personal view is that like anything, these should be assessed with a risk/benefit analysis – if you can find another type of formula that works for your baby, it’s probably not worth the (incremental) risk of having her consume too much soy. But remember- this is a small, small risk, so if there are other immense benefits to using soy (for example, your child can’t tolerate milk-based formulas and you can’t afford the hypoallergenics), you can still choose it with confidence.

Then, we have hypoallergenic formulas which are made with completely hydrolyzed milk protein – meaning it’s broken down so much that even babies allergic to milk protein can tolerate it– or a prescription version for severely food allergic babies, made from amino acids rather than milk or soy proteins. These are seriously life-saving for babies with severe allergies or food intolerances, but they are quite expensive and smell pretty nasty (especially when you drip them all over your car. Not that I’d know from experience or anything…) so these should only be used if you really need them. They are also marketed for “colic symptoms”; unless the “colic” is caused by a food intolerance which is exacerbated by regular formula, they probably won’t do all that much for you. Then again, since no one really knows the cause of colic, I could be dead wrong about this. If colic is some sort of gastrointestinal issue, then a hypoallergenic (or “hydrolysate”) formula could feasibly make life easier for a stressed-out baby gastro system. It’s worth a shot. Usually, if these formulas are going to help, you’ll know withing 24-48 hours of trying them. It’s often a quick and dramatic change for the better.

Lastly there are specialty formulas – some for premature infants or infants who are having trouble gaining/maintaining weight (sometimes doctors will have parents use regular formulas and just mix up different ratios of formula to water or add other elements to make them more nutrient dense – which should ONLY be done with a doctor’s supervision), and lactose-free formulas for kids who are lactose-intolerant. Most children are reacting to the milk protein and not the lactose (although certainly not all – lactose intolerance does indeed occur in babies, it’s just not as common as milk protein allergy) and will not do any better on these formulas; they will need a hypoallergenic formula to make them more comfortable.

3. What’s the difference between ready-to-feed, concentrated, and powdered formula?

Formula can come in three forms: powder, ready-to-feed, and concentrated.

The most common and economical option is the powdered formula, where you mix specific amounts of powder with (safe) water to make the formula.

Ready-to-feed is exactly what it sounds like – the formula is ready to go as is, so all you need to do is pour it from the container into the bottle, or some companies make “nurser” bottles, where you just attach a nipple directly to the bottle the formula comes in. These are often used for newborns, due to their ease and safety – if there is no water or mixing involved, there is less chance for human error or contamination. I think if you can afford to use them, they are the best bet for the first few weeks. There’s a lot less to worry about when you’re using these, and what new parent couldn’t use a little break from all the worry?

The last kind of formula, concentrated, isn’t all that common these days, but it is kind of like condensed soup – it comes in liquid form, and you need to add water to make it drinkable.

There are actually some differences in the formula itself when in different forms – some sensitive or refluxy babies do better with ready-to-feed, for example, because it isn’t clumpy and tends to be smoother and creamier in consistency than the powdered version. Also, most powdered formulas contain anti-caking agents – often corn-derived – that certain babies might be sensitive to. But for most babies, the powdered version will work just fine, and it is certainly the most economical option.

Bottom line: formulas and bottles do differ by type, brand, etc. This doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other, but there are fundamental differences, so if you are having feeding problems, don’t despair. It may be a case of trial-and-error (and if you’re like me, there may be a lot of error) but eventually you will find a feeding system that makes the heavens open and the sun shine down. Well, maybe not that good, but at the very least, you’ll find a system that allows your baby to be comfortable and fed.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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13 thoughts on “The FFF Quick-and-Dirty Guide to Formula Feeding: Differences between formulas and bottles

  1. Super helpful to have all of this in one place thanks! If you could give a few examples of the names of formulas that are sensitive etc, that would be great, though I know you don't want to look like you are advertising. Or perhaps do a little discussion of the whey-protein ratios in each or the main ingredients so we know what to look for? I once found something on the Sears site of all places on the composition of formulas but would love something here as well – perhaps we can pool collective scientific knowledge.

  2. This is really helpful! I just want to add something from my experience…powdered formula has corn in it and RTF does not. If you're trying to figure out allergies, I think it's worth trying RTF. My little guy was better, but still not doing great, on powdered Alimentum. We found out he has a corn allergy and switched to Alimentum RTF and the reflux and rashes are gone.

  3. Great post – I do want to mention, though, that I have heard there IS a difference between generic and brand-name formulas in that while the same standards have to be met nutritionally, etc., the generics do this with cheaper and lower-quality ingredients/sources. Also, in generic “gentle” formulas, the proteins are broken down differently than they are in the brand-name and that can make a difference as well. I was told by a pediatric dietician that you should go generic on everything else before formula, at least for the first six months. Again this information is secondhand but might be worth some research for you to either confirm or disprove. 🙂

  4. I really doubt that generic is really that bad. All my kids have done just fine on generic formula. Honestly I think the majority of the savings is the lack of advertizing and handing out samples. Generic and name brand formulas all have to meet the same nutritional guidelines.

  5. Weirdly enough, my baby did best on generic formula from one local chain of stores. Name brand, other stores' generics…all bad. It was a Similac generic; she could not tolerate Enfamil in any incarnation. The Similac itself was okay but caused more stomach upset.

  6. I think that another important point is that most generics seemed based on Enfamil. I have never seen a generic based on Good Start, and only a few based on Similac; however, Similac does not contain palm olien oil, which has been shown to reduce calcium and fat absorption, whereas the generic version of Similac (and almost every other formula) do contain palm olien oil.

  7. Target and CVS both have generic based on Similac. CVS just started offering it, Target has had it for a while. We use the Target generic. We used to use Similac because I had a bunch of coupons stockpiled. Oddly enough, my son was worse on Similac Sensitive… he seemed to have more gas and stomach pain and it made his poop dark and smelly, and he seemed to have a hard time pooping. It's always trial and error!

  8. I have seen that PBM does make a generic of Similac (they make formula for CVS, Target, WalMart, Kroger, among others). But theirs contains palm olien oil, so the fat blend is different from Similac. This may or may not be important to people but it's one of the distinctive features of Similac so I wouldn't consider it the same. I promise I don't work for Similac or anything, I just think that people should be aware there are differences that their babies could react to.

  9. Thank you. 🙂 I've had the “all formulas are the same” thrown at me so many times I have a readied response “if that's the case, then why do some babies have trouble on one formula but none on another?” I've talked to enough mothers who used newborn formulas and then switched who's babies didn't handle the normal infant formula that it's beyond my scope of vision why people cling to the “They're all the same” myth. There is a website though that I've had thrown at me talking about how all formulas are the same, and that the differences are just marketing ploys to make you buy the more expensive stuff. Here it is, if you want to use it as dart practice.

    As far as generics vs name-brand… for those wondering, there is a difference, at the same time if the baby handles it then it's going to be just as good as the name-brand. I used Enfamil Gentleease and SAMS Gentleease formulas. There was a difference in mixing, a difference in consistency, and he ate the SAMS variety slower than the Enfamil. Since that was the only problem, I kept using the SAMS variety, but there was a definite difference (and they're supposed to be extremely close to the same, as in the myth that Enfamil makes the SAMS variety and just doesn't put the brand on it so that's why it's cheaper.) I LIKED the SAMS Gentleease for how it mixed and it's less foamy nature. But my son seemed to prefer the Enfamil Gentleease.

  10. One important thing – the CDC recommends using ready-to-feed formula for young babies due to the potential for bacterial contamination of the powdered kind. If you use powder, it should be reconstituted with hot water for that reason. The concern is the bacteria in the powder, not the water, so using filtered or previously boiled water does not solve it.
    Here's the full explanation

  11. I so wish I had this resource 4 months ago, but at least I’ve found it now! Honestly when I went to buy formula for the first time, I felt like I was 14 again. When I was standing in the feminine hygiene isle trying to figure out what the heck half the products were. Ashamed and too shy to ask for help, oh god how I wish there was Google way back then. It’s a very fine line you walk and I must say you balance quite well. It’s so difficult to educate women about bottle feeding without discouraging them from breastfeeding. We need more minds that think like you.

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