Is Homemade Baby Formula Safe?

Given the recent formula shortages, some parents have been tempted to make their own formula at home, but experts don't recommend it. Here's why buying commercial formula is best for your baby's health.

An image of a mom grabbing a bottle for her baby.
Photo: Getty Images.

Across the country, a baby formula shortage is causing empty grocery store shelves and panicked parents. Many have been asking an important question: Can I make homemade baby formula? Unfortunately, while DIY formula would alleviate some of the formula-driven anxiety, experts and organizations advise against it. Crafting the perfect blend of ingredients and nutrients is no easy task, and getting it wrong can be downright dangerous for your baby. Here's what parents need to know.

The Potential Dangers of Homemade Formula

Search online and you'll see homemade baby formula recipes on forums, social media groups, and blogs. But these recipes are "definitely not advised," says pediatrician and Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Baby 411. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also advises against it because the recipes and ingredients aren't regulated.

Homemade formulas often lack important nutrients.

Your baby requires a very specific balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Without professional regulation of homemade formulas, there's a risk that your baby may get too much or not enough of each particular nutrient, leading to "severe nutritional imbalances," according to the FDA. Also, with the multiple steps required to prepare DIY formulas, parents can inadvertently make errors in measurements. An improper balance of nutrients can lead to malnourishment, excessive weight gain, or other health complications, such as dehydration.

Some ingredients might not be safe.

Many homemade formula recipes call for unpasteurized cow's milk or goat's milk as a base; others use meat broth. Babies shouldn't consume raw milk because it has not been pasteurized and may contain bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, which can lead to severe or deadly infections, says Jatinder Bhatia, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Georgia.

In addition, "full-fat milk, skim milk, goat milk, and other milks have levels of nutrients, both excesses and deficiencies, that are not well-suited for meeting the infant's nutritional requirements," Dr. Bhatia says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be fed breast milk or iron-fortified infant formula, even if infants are weaned from breast milk before 12 months. Cow's milk, goat's milk, soy milk, and meat broth-based formulas are not recommended during the first 12 months of life.

Contamination is possible with homemade formula.

Even if the formula isn't milk-based, there's still a risk for bacteria. "The AAP and other organizations have strict instructions about preparation, handling, and storage of commercial formulas to reduce the risk of contamination," says Dr. Bhatia. But with homemade formula, there are no guidelines. And with all the time-consuming cooking steps, there are many opportunities for contamination.

What's more, ingredients for DIY formulas often need to be purchased online or from multiple companies, which means that you may be putting the safety of your baby at risk because of uncertain manufacturing practices, says Bridget Swinney, R.D., author of Baby Bites: Everything You Need to Know about Feeding Babies and Toddlers in One Handy Book.

Why Commercial Formula Is Best

Experts believe commercial formula is the next best thing to breast milk. "Formula companies put millions of dollars into research to make formula as close as possible to breast milk," says Swinney. "From prebiotics to nucleotides to antioxidants and DHA, the many ingredients in infant formula make it a complex product not matched in a home kitchen."

Another reason to choose commercial formula: It's regulated by the FDA. This means the organization requires formula manufacturers to use safe ingredients, meet federal nutrient requirements, and test their products for pathogens before distribution. The FDA also conducts yearly inspections of all facilities that manufacture formula, and it collects and analyzes samples from all production facilities. These requirements and steps are in place to ensure that your baby gets a safe product.

If you're still looking for "healthier" formulas, an organic one may be worth a try. Other ways to be sure the formula you use is safe for your baby include following the instructions for proper preparation and storage, using clean bottles and nipples, checking the expiration date of the formula, and making sure the container doesn't have dents, rust spots, or leaks.

Another important step in finding the right formula for your baby is to read the ingredient list. Sure, many of the ingredients look like something out of your high school chemistry class, but generally, those terms are the scientific names for the different vitamins and minerals that make up the formula. "Alpha tocopherol is vitamin E and pyridoxine hydrochloride is vitamin B6," Swinney says. If you have questions or concerns about any ingredients, Dr. Bhatia recommends always asking a dietitian or physician to explain the ingredients and their purpose in the formula.

What If Parents Can't Find Formula

Many parents can't find formula right now, which is naturally causing panic across the country. After all, the majority of babies rely on formula as their main or supplemental source of nutrition. Some infants also need specialty formulas because of dietary restrictions and food intolerances—and if they don't get it, they can suffer negative health consequences. Instead of making homemade formula, experts recommend taking the following steps if you're facing supply issues.

  • Talk to your pediatrician, who might be able to help you secure formula
  • Check for formula at grocery stories, pharmacies, local shops, drugstores, the manufacturer's website, and online marketplaces
  • Consider switching formula brands (but get the green light from your doctor first)
  • Supplement with solids if your baby is old enough
  • Never dilute formula
  • Don't feed a baby cow's milk or goat's milk before age one
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