Formula: Why use instead of cow's milk?

When my first son was born I fed him formula and I switched him to cow's milk at eight months and he did perfectly fine. My mom told me she switched us to two percent milk at three months. Except for allergies, which most people have in some form or another, we all are pretty healthy. Why is formula better than milk for babies?


Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

If a mother is not breastfeeding, there are many reasons to use baby formula rather than milk. Formula was modeled after breastmilk, the best food for baby. Careful research and product development was carried out to make sure that not only vitamin and mineral levels were appropriate for baby, but also the amount and types of fat, proteins and sugars too. The health of babies drinking these formulas was also studied and then in 1980 the Infant Formula Act was passed. The act requires that all infant formulas meet the same strict standards. This is to ensure that suboptimal formulas that can result in malnutrition or other physical harm to the baby are not on the market.

Cow's milk is inappropriate for babies, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that cow's milk not be used as a replacement for breast milk or formula for the first year of life. Infants fed whole cow's milk have low intakes of iron, linoleic acid and vitamin E and excessive intakes of sodium, potassium and protein. The protein molecule in cow's milk is large and can permeate the intestine of the infant undigested, causing intestinal bleeding. This intestinal bleeding may not be visible to the naked eye but would be detected on exam. This intestinal bleeding contributes to the poor iron status of the infant. The protein level in cow's milk is too high, causing stress on the kidneys as they try to dilute the nitrogenous waste products from the protein. This can lead to dehydration as the baby's body draws on water stores.

Although cow's milk protein is used in infant formula, it has been modified to make it more digestible. The amount of protein used is in smaller concentrations than in cow's milk, and more closely matches the level in breast milk.

To improve fat digestibility, to provide for essential fatty acids, and to reduce environmental contaminants, the butterfat of cow's milk is replaced with vegetable oils or a mixture of vegetables and animal fats.

As you can see, it is not just an issue of adding in missing nutrients to make cow's milk appropriate for babies. There are lots of other factors to consider. Many of these factors are ones that you cannot accommodate at home with a bottle of cow's milk and a vial of vitamin drops. It involves careful measuring, modifying and altering to make a formula that is just what baby needs to grow optimally, both physically and mentally.

With this in mind, I hope that for the health of your baby you do not consider feeding him cow's milk. The absolute best choice for your new baby would be breast milk. It is the perfect food for him. If that isn't an option, than formula is the next best thing. Regular milk is not only a poor choice, it can actually cause nutritional deficiencies and put your infant at risk.

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