When to Choose an Amino Acid Formula

Published by Laura Dean, RDN, LD Pediatric Dietitian Norton Children’s Medical Group, Pulmonology on Apr 05, 2022

This blog post is sponsored by Reckitt/Mead Johnson Nutrition. 

Becoming a parent comes with lots of decisions and learning. One of those decisions is about how you will feed your baby. We have all heard that breast is best, and as a Registered Dietitian, I agree, but I also know that there are times when fed is best, and that can mean choosing formula. Choosing to provide baby formula can be a good decision for you and your baby but determining which formula can be overwhelming.

If you have ever walked down the infant formula aisle at the grocery, you know that there are many options. Infant formulas are designed with the right balance of nutrients to meet the needs of babies. Most formula is made specifically to be similar to breast milk, and if your baby is born full-term and does not need a more special formula, then a standard term formula will provide the nutrition they need. The difference comes when you need a more specialized formula.

There are three main types of infant formula; the most basic formula standard infant formula is a formula that is made from cow’s milk and is designed to be close to breast milk. Like breast milk, standard infant formulas are about 20 calories per ounce. Their protein is intact or whole, meaning your baby has to break down the protein as it is digested. These formulas are often well tolerated by most babies. If your baby is experiencing some mild digestive concerns, your pediatrician or dietitian may suggest a partially hydrolyzed formula.

Partially hydrolyzed formulas are formulas where the proteins are partly broken down and easier to digest. Babies with suspected cow’s milk allergy are often changed to a partially hydrolyzed formula, and those babies do very well. These formulas may also be used for babies who struggle with reflux or even constipation. These are 20 calories per ounce when made based on the package directions like standard formulas.

The third type of formula is an amino acid or elemental formula; these formulas are completely free of dairy and have very broken-down proteins. These formulas are specifically designed for babies with food allergies or who cannot tolerate other formulas due to medical reasons. Amino acid formulas may be used if a baby is not gaining weight well and needs something more broken down. These formulas are typically well-tolerated and provide the right balance of nutrients for babies to grow. When mixed according to package directions, they are 20 calories per ounce like breast milk.

There are several reasons to choose an amino acid formula. This should always be done under the supervision of a healthcare provider. We often think of using amino acid formulas for babies with a protein allergy; however, they may also be used for babies with other medical conditions who struggle with poor growth. We can also use amino acid formulas to improve tolerance when nothing else is working. Improved tolerance can include easier bowel movements, reduced spit-up or vomiting, reduced fussiness or gas, and can improve growth when babies are not growing well on other formulas. Because Amino acid formulas are so broken down, they are easy for babies to take in their nutrients, which is why we often see improved growth and development using these types of formula.

No matter how you choose to feed your baby, be confident in your decision and willing to learn about your baby and their specific needs. Talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns about your baby’s feeding or growth.

Laura is an experienced Registered Dietitian with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital & health care industry. Skilled in Clinical Nutrition, Medical Nutrition Therapy, Pediatrics, Cardiology, Pulmonology, Gastroenterology, and General Nutrition. A strong healthcare services professional: Board Certified in Pediatric Nutrition with a Master of Arts focused in Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences and a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics.