When it comes to baby formula, some moms make their own, even though experts recommend that buying commercial is best. Get the details on whether DIY'ing formula is an option for you.

Baby drinking out of bottle
Credit: Flashon Studio/ Shutterstock

No doubt, breast milk is best for babies. If you can't breastfeed, however, or choose not to, or if you need to supplement your breast milk, formula is the next best thing. But if you're concerned about giving your baby the most natural and organic ingredients, you may be wondering if it's possible to make your own baby formula.

Some moms do -- and recipes for homemade baby formula are easy to find on Google and Pinterest. DIYing formula can be less expensive than purchasing it in stores, and it may seem healthier because you're aware of (and able to pronounce) all of its ingredients.

Let's be crystal clear: This is not something experts recommend. Talk to any pediatrician, and you'll receive a warning about the dangers of making your own baby formula. Crafting the perfect blend of ingredients and nutrients is no easy task?and health experts warn that getting it wrong can be downright dangerous for your baby. A recent high-profile example came from Australia, where public health officials were instrumental in delaying the publication of a paleo baby cookbook because of concerns that a DIY baby formula recipe it included, which called for chicken liver and bone broth, contained a dangerous excess of nutrients and vitamins.

The fact is: Experts believe baby formula is one area where it's best to stick with the commercial stuff on the shelves.

The Potential Dangers of Homemade Formula

Experts point to the following risks of making your own formula:

Some ingredients aren't safe

Many homemade formula recipes call for unpasteurized cow's milk or goat's milk as a base (others use meat broth). Raw milk shouldn't be consumed by anyone -- infants, children, or even adults -- because it 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. One mom in Maine who fed her baby goat's milk formula in 2013 faced repercussions when the Department of Health and Human Services considered removing the baby from her care. 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, and soy milk are not recommended during the first 12 months of life.

Contamination is possible

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, because the AAP doesn't recommend it, there are no guidelines. And with all the time-consuming cooking steps, there are many opportunities for contamination. Furthermore, 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.

An imbalance of nutrients is likely

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 the baby may get too much or not enough of each particular nutrient. And, as with the multiple steps that are required to prepare DIY formulas, there is a risk of errors in measurements. Whether the recipe isn't nutritionally adequate to begin with, or you flub the measurements during the prep work, an improper balance of nutrients can lead to malnourishment, excessive weight gain, or other health complications.

Even with these risks, though, some moms believe homemade formula is the way to go.

Sarah Jenks, a San Francisco mother, chose to supplement her breast milk with homemade formula when her son was 6 months old because she wanted to provide him with what she felt was "the freshest, healthiest thing possible," she says.

Jenks found a formula recipe in a cookbook, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, and consulted with experts before feeding it to her son. "I talked to nutritionists, naturopaths, and other people who study food, and all of them said the homemade formula has everything my baby needs," she says. In addition, her son's pediatrician, who was worried at first, checked out the ingredients in the recipe. Jenks says her son didn't have any problems with the homemade formula.

If, like Jenks, you've acknowledged the possible health risks and still want to make your own formula, always remember these important guidelines:

  • Consult an expert first. Before you give your baby homemade formula, talk to your pediatrician or a nutritionist who works with babies. These experts can alert you to any possible dangers with online recipes or those shared by word of mouth, which may have unsafe ingredients and incorrect amounts, or be harmful in other ways.
  • Always keep the process clean. "Any food made for a baby, be it formula or baby food, needs to start with a clean preparation area, clean hands, clean utensils, and clean storage containers," Swinney says. No shortcuts allowed.
  • Watch out for health problems. Because a kitchen-created formula may be at risk for having too few or too many ingredients, be on the lookout for any signs of a problem. Jenks had her baby's blood tested every three months or so to check for deficiencies or excesses. Some symptoms that warrant a call or visit to the pediatrician include poor weight gain, excessive weight gain, vomiting, fever, change in overall appearance or mood, or changes in stool color (such as blood-streaked stools) or consistency (like diarrhea).

Why Commercial Formula Is Best

Although nothing can duplicate breast milk, experts believe commercial formula is the next best thing. "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 Food and Drug Administration (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 dietician or physician to explain the ingredients and their purpose in the formula.

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