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A Comprehensive Look at Alternatives to Baby Formula

A Comprehensive Look at Alternatives to Baby Formula

Table of contents

By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD 

Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She specializes in writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics. 

While human breast milk is nature’s perfect food for babies, it’s not always an option for every family, leaving many mothers struggling to decide what the best alternatives are for their baby or toddler. Fortunately, the infant and toddler formula industry has grown and changed since its inception in the early 20th century, and there are now several options to choose from.

There may also come a time when parents are determining when and if a healthy alternative to baby formula is indicated for their child. Understanding what baby formula alternatives are appropriate to use and when, and what options should be avoided, is critical for the safety and nutrition of your child.

Breast Milk Alternatives

Donor Milk

The first and more natural milk alternative is donor milk. This is a great choice for mothers who want their baby to receive breast milk, but are unable to produce it themselves or provide enough to sustain their baby’s nutrient needs. Donor milk is simply breast milk produced and donated by other lactating mothers. 

In a sense, donor milk is the modern version of wet nursing, when lactating women would breastfeed and help care for another woman’s baby. There are several ways that mothers can find donor milk for their baby. Donor milk can be formally obtained from local milk banks where donations are collected. Donor milk in these facilities is pasteurized and tested for bacteria.

Donating mothers are also tested for any illnesses that could be passed through breastmilk before they are allowed to donate. Many local hospitals also participate in donor milk donation programs, where new mothers who need it can access it for their baby. 

Second, many local groups exist with forums online in which mom-to-mom donor milk is facilitated on an informal level. Mothers can meet up personally and exchange breast milk with one another, which is typically done in the form of frozen bags of milk. This option comes with more risk, as milk is shared directly, so good hygiene and sanitation cannot be ensured.

Baby Formula

The other breast milk alternative is infant formula. Baby formula is a synthetic form of liquid nutrition designed to closely mimic the nutrient quality and composition of breast milk. It provides a similar amount of calories, fat, and protein per ounce as breast milk and must adhere to federal regulations. This can be a plant based milk like almond milk and cashew milk, or it can also be a dairy product animal like goat's milk.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires minimum amounts of 29 different nutrients in baby formulas, with at least 9 of those having specified levels that cannot be exceeded. 

There are a number of infant baby formula options available, including dairy-based, soy-based, and hypoallergenic or hydrolyzed protein formulas, depending on your baby’s needs. Baby formula is also offered in various forms, such as powdered, concentrated liquid, and ready-to-feed.

alternatives to baby formula

Alternatives to Baby Formula

Mothers who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed may also be wondering whether there are natural alternatives to baby formula available. The short answer is that breast milk or baby formula are the only safe and appropriate primary sources of nutrition for infants under one year of age.

While there are recipes for homemade baby formula that often circulate the internet, this is not a safe way to feed your baby. Commercial baby formulas have undergone extensive research as well as comprehensive regulatory review and approval to ensure they are safe and adequate sources of nutrition for infants. 

Homemade baby formula comes with numerous risks of malnutrition, contamination, and serious health consequences and should not be used. Furthermore, research has found that many homemade baby formula recipes are found on blogs that are not run by healthcare professionals, do not contain medical disclaimers, and utilize high-risk ingredients such as raw milk.

Toddler Formulas

Once your child reaches at least 12 months of age, a toddler formula can be introduced as an additional source of nutrition. They should not be used before 12 months of age as they are not designed to be sole or primary sources of nutrition for infants. 

Toddler formulas are a great option for parents looking for a concentrated source of nutrients to supplement their child’s overall healthy diet. They can be a healthy alternative to baby formula when your child reaches the appropriate stage of development and are no longer solely relying on formula or breast milk.

Else Nutrition’s toddler formula is plant-based, dairy-free, soy-free, gluten-free, non-GMO, and free of corn syrup. It uses almonds, buckwheat, and tapioca as its main ingredients, which is a great option for kids who need a soy-free and dairy-free diet.

Almonds are a great source of plant protein, healthy fats, and essential micronutrients like vitamin E. They are highly digestible, have anti-inflammatory properties, and contribute prebiotics to feed a healthy gut microbiome.

Tapioca is derived from cassava, a root vegetable. It’s an easily digestible carbohydrate rich in vitamin C, iron, fiber, and calcium. Buckwheat is a naturally gluten-free plant with grain-like seeds. It’s a good source of plant protein as well as prebiotic fiber, antioxidants, and micronutrients like magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, copper, and iron.

In a baby formula industry primarily dominated by soy and dairy-based products, Else Nutrition offers a plant-based organic alternative to baby formula that has been long-awaited by many families.

Toddler formulas are a convenient option for kids who need a nutrition boost, may be going through a period of selective eating at mealtimes, or who would benefit from easy and nutritious to-go foods. They work best as a complement to meals or between mealtimes.

Baby Formula Preparation Tips

When preparing formulas for your baby or toddler, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, wash your hands well with soap and water to minimize the risk of contaminating the formula with unwanted germs. The workspace or countertop, as well as the bottles and utensils you’re using to prepare the formula, should also be properly sanitized.

After you mix the formula per the manufacturer’s instructions, you may be wanting to warm it up a little, especially if your baby has been used to drinking breast milk. This isn’t necessary, but if you choose to warm it, it should never be done using the microwave due to the risk of uneven heating and overheating in “hot spots” that can burn your child’s mouth or throat.

Instead, you can place the prepared and closed bottle of formula under a stream of warm running water. Test the temperature by pouring a few drops on the skin of your inner forearm to make sure it’s not too hot.

If you’re using a powdered formula, be sure to use water from a safe source to prepare it. Follow the instructions exactly to make sure the correct amount of water and powder are measured out and used. If too much water is used, this could dilute the formula too much and end up being inadequate for your baby’s nutritional needs. On the other hand, using too little water can be taxing on immature organs and raise the risk for dehydration.

Once you’ve properly prepared your baby’s formula, it needs to be used within two hours or within one hour from when your baby starts drinking it. Otherwise, prepared infant formula should be stored in the refrigerator and used within 24 hours. If your baby doesn’t drink it all in one sitting, leftover formula should be discarded as bacteria from their saliva can promote bacterial growth that could cause illness.

Lastly, unopened containers of infant formulas should also be stored properly, in cool, dry places at room temperature, like a pantry. Check the expiration date and don’t use formula after it passes its “Use By” date.

Other Milk Alternatives

As you’re likely well aware, there are a growing variety of non-dairy commercial milk alternatives available to consumers today. Many of these are shelved right next to their traditional dairy counterparts, although they’re expanding so much that many stores have designated sections for plant-based alternatives.

The most important thing to note about milk alternatives is that they are not a suitable replacement for breast milk or baby formula and should never be used as such. Neither should cow’s milk, for that matter, as this has been shown to lead to severe nutrient deficiencies.

Why can’t you substitute commercial milks for formulas? Plant milks don’t contain all of the nutrients, or the right nutritional composition of them needed to properly fuel the development of little bodies. Babies require substantial calories and healthy fats, along with adequate protein, vitamins and minerals, to grow normally. Breast milk is a highly nutrient-dense, complex food designed to meet those needs and infant formulas have been carefully formulated to mimic it as best as possible.

That being said, plant-based milk alternatives can certainly be introduced to your child and incorporated as part of a healthy diet after 12 months of age. It’s important to wait until one year so that milks don’t take up space for other crucial sources of calories and nutrition during infancy. Furthermore, most kids aren’t ready to transition to more solid foods and other sources of nutrients until closer to this age.

Below are some of the most popular milk alternatives when parents are looking to transition from baby formula, and some things to consider about each.

organic alternatives to baby formula

Goat Milk

Goat milk is often used in place of cow’s milk when toddlers are ready to transition from baby formula. It tends to have slightly more protein, fat, and micronutrients than cow’s milk, and also contain less lactose than dairy. It should not be introduced before 12 months of age for the aforementioned reasons, but also because babies lack the digestive maturity to break down large amounts of animal protein in the form of milk.
Studies have shown that replacing infant formula or breast milk with goat’s milk can lead to serious health and developmental problems. If you decide to introduce your child to goat’s milk after age one, make sure it’s pasteurized as raw goat milk can contain dangerous bacteria.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is found in two main forms, a carton or a can. Canned coconut milk is incredibly high in saturated fat, which is much too concentrated to give babies. Commercially made coconut milk in cartons is more diluted and typically has a fat content similar to cow’s milk, but often contains thickeners and additives to maintain texture.
Furthermore, coconut milk can be a decent source of iron, vitamin A, and various B vitamins, but offers negligible amounts of protein. However, coconut milk is also a unique source of a compound called lauric acid, which appears to have potential immune-boosting and infection-fighting benefits.

Rice Milk

Rice milk is one of the original plant-based milks and many parents have used it for their children. It’s made from rice and water, and has a very mild flavor. Rice milk is low in calories and protein, but is a good source of calcium and contains a variety of other micronutrients.
The primary concern with rice milk is that rice is a well-known source of inorganic arsenic, a heavy metal that naturally occurs in the soil. Rice crops are among the most concentrated sources, which means products made with rice can also contribute this unwanted substance. Studies have found that arsenic intake can lead to an increased risk for various cancers, as well as gastrointestinal, reproductive, immunological, and neurological problems in children and should therefore be avoided as much as possible.

Soy Milk

Be sure to choose a fortified soy milk to ensure that it contains all of the essential vitamins and minerals for your toddler. As many parents are concerned about pesticides and genetically-modified ingredients, choosing certified organic soy milk is a good way to minimize your child’s exposure to both through their diet.
Soy milk is made from soybeans, has the closest nutrient composition to cow’s milk and is therefore most often recommended for kids seeking non-dairy milk options. It offers approximately 6-9 grams of protein per cup, depending on the brand.

Almond Milk

Almond milk is made primarily from almonds and water and offers a mild flavor. While it’s an option for kids who need to avoid soy and dairy, almond milk would not be suitable for kids with a tree nut allergy. Almond milk is diluted and therefore very low in calories, fat, and protein, but often provides around 50% of the daily needs for calcium and vitamin B12 if it’s been fortified.

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is made by blending water with the seeds of the hemp plant, Cannabis sativa. It has a nutty and earthy flavor, and provides a similar amount of fat to cow’s milk. However, hemp milk is low in calories and protein. Fortified hemp milk will typically contain a variety of micronutrients and is easily digested.

Overall, look for fortified milks that are unsweetened as much as possible, to optimize their nutritional contribution to your child’s diet without unnecessary added sugar. You may find that rotating a variety of several high-quality plant-based milks into your toddler’s diet is helpful to meet supplemental nutrient needs. Always read the nutrition label to determine the most nutrient-dense plant milk options.

When to Consult a Pediatrician

If you’re ever concerned that your baby or toddler isn’t getting the nutrition he or she needs, it’s best to speak to your healthcare provider. Your pediatrician and/or registered dietitian are there to help you make the best decisions for your child’s health that will promote optimal growth and development.

While breast milk is the ideal source of nutrition for growing babies, it’s not an option for every family. Baby formula is the next best option, and there are several commercial varieties to choose from that will safely and adequately provide the nutrition your baby needs in his or her first year of life. 

Once your baby reaches at least one year, you may decide to switch from baby formula to toddler formula and/or plant-based milk alternatives as a supplemental source of calories and nutrition for your child.

The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child. 

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