Table of contents
- Breast Milk Alternatives
- Alternatives to Baby Formula
- Toddler Formulas
- Baby Formula Preparation Tips
- Other Milk Alternatives
- When to Consult a Pediatrician
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.