Formula milk is the only safe alternative to breastfeeding or using breast milk for feeding your baby. If you choose not to breastfeed or are unable to, it will help to provide the important nutrients they need. However, with a wide range of brands available it can be tricky to know what the right one is for your baby.
We spoke to 674 parents of kids under five about their experience of formula milk in our June 2022 survey. A third told us they wanted to know about the difference between brands, while three in 10 wanted to know if price reflects quality.
With this in mind we've outlined what the different formula milk brands offer, the most used brands and the cheapest place to buy them. We've also got advice on follow-on, toddler and specialist milks, and what they offer for your baby.
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The best baby formula milk
The composition of all infant formula and follow-on formula in the UK is strictly controlled under The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula (England) regulations. This means the core ingredients of all formulas are identical, so no one formula is better than the other.
Claims such as ‘Closest to breast milk’, 'Gold advanced System' and 'Complete nutrition' are meaningless, as the exact ingredients of breast milk are unknown and change according to a baby’s age and feeding patterns.
There are two organic formula milks available on the market, made by HiPP Organic and Kendamil. However, even in non-organic formulas, the pesticide residue level is set very low (must not exceed 0.01mg/kg of the reconstituted or ready-for-consumption product).
Are any baby formula milk brands better than others?
In addition to the core ingredients, all formulas contain extra ingredients, a lot of which are the same across all the brands. These include LCPs (long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids), nucleotides and prebiotics.
Many formulas include an additional prebiotic ingredient: oligosaccharides. These are often referred to as FOS or GOS, which are produced commercially from lactose and sucrose, or 2’-FL or LNnT, which are artificially made to mimic oligosaccharides found in breast milk. However, although they are safe to add to formula milk, there is no strong evidence to support the efficacy of these additional ingredients.
Other than the addition of DHA, an LCP which the EFSA has accepted contributes to the normal visual development of infants up to 12 months, the other extra ingredients are not of proven benefit; therefore, having these additional ingredients doesn't make one formula milk more superior than another. If they were, then the formula milk compositional criteria would be amended to include it.
What is the closest baby formula to breast milk?
The make-up of all infant formula is as close to breast milk as possible, but it’s impossible to replicate all the ingredients found in breast milk. It's estimated that there are more than 100 substances in breast milk that aren't in baby formula. Plus, breast milk changes over time to provide the nutrients your baby needs.
Regulations dictate compositional criteria, minimum and maximum levels of nutrients that must be included, the level of pesticide residue permitted, how formulas can be named and labelled, and how the formulas can be presented (for example, they’re not allowed to include pictures of babies).
Under the regulations, infant formula is also not allowed to be advertised to the public or be offered at a discounted rate. This is so that it doesn’t undermine breastfeeding.
See more information in our guide on breastfeeding vs formula milk
Most popular baby formula milk brands
In June 2022, we asked 674 parents with children under five which formula milk brands they used.
Join Which? to discover the most popular formula milk brands:
- Brand 1 – 41%
- Brand 2 – 40%
- Brand 3 – 17%
- Brand 4 – 10%
- Brand 5 – 8%
Costs of baby formula milk
The amount of formula you need to buy will depend on your baby's weight, appetite and feeding patterns. For an even comparison, we looked at how much it costs to buy enough baby formula per month for six feeds per day.
The most expensive standard infant formula powder is Apatmil at £40.50 a month, and the cheapest is Cow & Gate at £30 per month.* As we've seen, the ingredients of proven benefit are the similar across the board, so it's worth seeing what your baby prefers if you want to make a saving.
If you receive Healthy Start vouchers, you can also use these to buy infant formula.
*Based on prices on 31 October 2022.
Cheapest place to buy baby formula
We've tracked the prices of the main baby formula milk powders from supermarket and high street retailers to find out, on average, where they are the cheapest and most expensive.
|Baby formula milk brand||Average price*||Average price per 100g||Lowest average price||Highest average price|
|Aptamil 1 First Baby Milk Formula Powder from Birth (800g)||£12.20||£1.53||£12.18 at Asda||£12.95 at Waitrose|
|Cow & Gate 1 First Baby Milk Formula From Birth (800g)||£9.25||£1.16||£9.22 at Asda||£9.59 at Waitrose|
|HiPP Organic 1 First Milk Powder (800g)||£11.47||£1.43||£11.12 at Morrisons||£11.95 at Waitrose|
|Kendamil First Infant Milk Stage 1 (900g)||£10.53||£1.17||£10 at Asda and Morrisons||£11 at Boots|
|SMA PRO First Infant Milk From Birth (800g)||£11.82||£1.48||£11.71 at Asda||£12.67 at Waitrose|
*Prices from 29 October 2021 to 28 October 2022. Retailers include: Amazon, Asda, Boots, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury's, Superdrug, Tesco and Waitrose.
The cheapest baby formula milk is from Cow & Gate, which has an average cost across retailers of £9.25 per tin (£1.16 per 100g). On average, Asda is the cheapest place to buy Cow & Gate baby formula.
For most baby formula milk powders, apart from HiPP Organic, Asda tends to have the best price.
The most expensive baby formula milk is from Aptamil, with an average price of £12.20 (£1.53 per 100g) across retailers. Asda is the cheapest place to pick up a tin of Aptamil, while Waitrose is the most expensive.
Aptamil's baby formula milk powder has also seen the largest price increase in the past year, going up on average across retailers by 16%.
We've also found thecheapest place to buy Pampersand thebest price for supermarket own-brand nappies.
Does my baby need follow-on formula?
No. NHS advice is that follow-on formula is not necessary. You can continue to give infant formula if not breastfeeding or using expressed breast milk to feed your baby.
Follow-on formula contains the same ingredients as infant formula, and its levels of nutrients are also strictly controlled under the same regulations. It contains higher levels of iron and vitamin D, which babies need a higher dietary intake of from six months; because of this, some people choose to switch to follow-on formula.
However, Shefalee Loth, nutritionist and Which? principal researcher, explains: 'After six months you'll be weaning your baby and they can get the extra iron they need from iron-rich foods such as chickpeas, kidney beans, red meat and green leafy veg in their diet.
'Vitamin D is harder to get from diet though and the government recommends that babies and children aged six month to five years are given supplements containing vitamin A, C and D every day.'
If your baby is drinking around 500-600ml of infant formula a day, they should be receiving enough vitamin D to meet their needs, so they won’t need additional drops.
All the brands have a follow-on formula though, and these are usually labelled as stage 2. If you still decide to use it, your child would need to be six months or older (it's not suitable from birth). Two in five parents we spoke to, with children under five, told us they've used follow-on formula.
When do babies stop drinking formula?
'After one, give your baby full-fat cow's milk. It's cheaper than growing-up milk and toddler milk, and it doesn't contain added sugar,' says Shefalee.
'Until one, milk is the main component of your baby's diet and cow's milk doesn't provide the balance of nutrients they need.
'However, after one food becomes the main component of your baby's diet and they will get the nutrients they need by eating a varied diet containing lean meat, fish, wholegrains and fruit and veg.'
Does my baby need toddler milk?
No. Growing-up milk is advertised as ‘specially designed to meet the needs of your toddler’. But its nutritional value is compared solely with cow’s milk, instead of food and cow's milk.
Around 300ml of cow’s milk (approx half a pint) will provide all the calcium a one to three-year-old needs (350mg per day).
Is toddler milk better than cow's milk?
Here’s how different brands of toddler milk compare with cow’s milk in terms of sugar, calcium and cost:
|Ingredients and price||Full-fat cow's milk||Apatamil 1yr+ growing up milk powder||Cow & Gate 1-2yrs growing up milk powder||Kendamil Classic Toddler Milk||HiPP organic combiotic growing up milk||SMA Pro Growing Up Milk|
|Sugar (g) per 100ml||4.7g||6.7g||6.9g||7.4g||6g||6.6g|
|Calcium (mg) per 100ml||120mg||126mg||124mg||121mg||73mg||127mg|
|Price (£) per week*||£2.35||£5.91||£4.27||£4.72||£3.78||£5.46|
*Prices checked on 28 October 2022 and based on two feeds per day.
Although most follow-on formulas, apart from HiPP Organic, provide a similar amount of calcium to cow's milk per 100ml, they are all higher in sugar and more expensive. Higher levels of sugar can encourage a preference for sweet foods and in the long-term can lead to dental cavities.
Toddler milk is advertised as containing much more iron than cow’s milk, but this is misleading. Cow’s milk contains very little iron and is not where you or your baby gets iron from in their diet. Iron is found in red meat, eggs, lentils and pulses, and green leafy veg.
Your toddler should meet all their nutritional needs through the food they eat and a multivitamin drop that contains vitamins A, C and D as recommended by the government, not through expensive fortified milks.
See the best baby food brands according to parents
Baby formula without lactose
Lactose intolerance occurs when your body cannot digest lactose, a natural sugar found in milk and dairy products. It's often temporary and can occur in your baby's first few months until their levels of lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) have become fully established.
If your baby has symptoms including diarrhoea, abdominal pain, wind and bloating, speak to a midwife, health visitor or GP. If your baby is formula-fed, they may temporarily put them on a lactose-free formula before switching back to standard infant formula after a few weeks.
Keep in mind that lactose intolerance is not the same as a cow's milk allergy. Lactose-free formula contains cow’s milk proteins that are found in normal infant formula, so it isn't suitable for babies with a cow’s milk allergy.
Speak to your GP if your baby has symptoms of a cow's milk allergy, which include skin reactions, eczema and digestive problems, as they can prescribe a specialist infant formula.
Specialist baby formula: should you buy it?
In addition to infant formula and follow-on formula, there are a number of other baby formulas on the market that supposedly deal with specific conditions.
Baby formula milk for colic
All the leading formula brands have a range of milk that is marketed as ‘comfort’ or ‘easy to digest’.
These formulas are based on 100% whey protein, which has been partially hydrolysed (broken down) and contains less lactose than standard formulas.
Aptamil, SMA and Cow & Gate’s versions also contain a thickener. This is for a more controlled intake and to help your baby take in less air when feeding, according to the brands.
Do I need baby formula for colic?
No. The effectiveness of comfort milks over infant milks in reducing the symptoms of colic is not established. Instead of switching formula, small changes to the timing and quantity of feeds can help to manage colic.
Comfort milks cost more than infant formula: Aptamil Comfort costs £16 per 800g (£2 per 100g) compared with £13.50 per 800g (£1.69 per 100g) for Aptamil First Milk. SMA Comfort costs £13 for 800g (£1.63 per 100g) compared with SMA Infant formula £12.20 per 800g (£1.53 per 100g).
Baby formula milks for reflux
Aptamil Anti-Reflux, Cow & Gate Anti-Reflux and SMA Anti-Reflux are all marketed as helping reflux, posseting and regurgitation.
These milks contain added ingredients, such as corn starch or carob bean gum, which thicken the milk, either on preparation or once in the tummy. The manufacturers say that the thicker milk helps it stay in the tummy.
Do I need formula for reflux?
No. There is little evidence on the effect these thickeners have on other nutrients in the milk and how well they’re absorbed.
Most babies grow out of reflux and many researchers suggest it would be more useful for parents to be given advice on how to deal with simple reflux. For example smaller feeds more often, but with the same overall amount of milk per day, can help.
Hungry baby milk
Hungry baby formula, which can be used from birth, is marketed to parents for babies who aren’t satisfied by standard infant formula.
The difference is found in the protein make-up of the milk. Standard infant formula has a whey:casein ratio of 60:40, which is very similar to breast milk. Hungry baby formula has a whey:casein ratio of 20:80, which is similar to cow’s milk.
The theory is that the higher casein content helps to slow digestion and results in the baby feeling more satisfied and less hungry soon after feeding. Some of the formula manufacturers claim hungry milk can delay the start of weaning until the recommended time, for hungrier bottle-fed babies.
Do I need hungry baby milk?
No, there's no concrete evidence to support that babies settle better or stay full for longer when given hungry baby milk.
How to make baby formula
Formula milk isn’t difficult to prepare, as long as you have a decent kettle to hand. Here are our four top tips:
- Clean bottles and teats thoroughly:You should wash bottles, teats and other feeding equipment in hot, soapy water. Then rinse them with running water, after which they are ready to be sterilised.
- Boil your kettle:Make the formula using fresh boiled water from the kettle that's reached at least 70°C and cooled to room temperature before feeding.
- Use the scoop: Use the scoop provided to measure the correct amount of formula powder as recommended by the manufacturer. Don't be tempted to add extra as this can cause constipation and dehydration.
- Steer clear of the microwave:Microwaves can create hot spots which will burn your baby’s mouth. If your baby prefers their milk warm, heat a bottle of formula by running hot water over it, or place it in a bowl of warm water.
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