Why Is Baby Formula So Expensive?

I was hit with the reality of just how expensive baby formula is, which happened towards the end of my maternity leave. Formula was my plan B just in case I couldn’t pump enough milk to see my little one through the day when at the day-care with mommy at work.

I had discussions with my pediatrician about formula, specifically about which brand will be best for my little one. Our discussions also involved breastfeeding as the main source of sustenance with formula as a supplement to meet my baby’s needs. These discussions helped a great deal in my understanding of how best to provide for my little one.

The cost of popular brand name formula almost had me believing that the formula had to be better than my breastmilk! Jokes aside, however, I did have to restructure my budget to accommodate formula purchases for the time I had to exclusively rely on formula to feed my baby, which fortunately was not very long.

Breastmilk vs formula

There are ongoing controversial discussions about breastmilk and formula, with individuals supporting one or the other as the better option for a baby’s growth and development. Let’s face it, formula is a good substitute or supplement for breastmilk, but to this point, breastmilk still remains the best nutrition for infants.

This is because breastmilk changes its makeup during feeding from thin sugar-rich milk in the beginning to creamy fat-rich milk toward the end of a feeding.

Laced into this are valuable antibodies that build and strengthen your baby’s immune system. In short, breastmilk provides what your baby needs at that specific time which goes a long way to ensuring your baby remains healthy and is getting the right nutritional support to promote good health.

On the other hand, formula remains a step behind breastmilk, but it still remains a good feeding option for your little one. Having said this, much research has been conducted on creating formula to replicate breastmilk. The research is ongoing, and formula is getting better along the way, or is it?

What’s really in formula?

A dad is formula feeding his baby daughter.

The saying “You are what you eat” is very true for many formula-fed babies. The United States is facing increasing numbers of obese children plagued with diabetes, which should come as no surprise because the carbohydrate base in some formula types or brands does not replicate breastmilk.

In these formula types, the carbohydrate base is created using high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup solids, or plain sugar. In breastmilk, the carbohydrate base is lactose. The argument for so many obese children is overfeeding, but the science differs from this opinion.

This one small fact should inspire you to read and understand what ingredients make up the formula you intend to feed your little one. How this has not been brought into check is anyone’s guess, yet we are told that the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) are very strict on baby foods.

The FDA guidelines

Formula ingredients must comply with the FDA’s strict guidelines, and this is tightly regulated. Included in FDA requirements are proteins, fats, carbohydrates and a specific list of vitamins and minerals.

Some formulas contain extra ingredients like probiotics, ARA (arachidonic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and iron which add to the price of the formula. ARA and DHA are two types of long-chain fatty acids found in breast milk, and research has found them to play an important role in early neurodevelopment and cognitive ability.

These fatty acids are FDA-approved and recognized formula ingredients, but their inclusion is not mandatory. The same applies to prebiotics and probiotics, which are included in some formulas to improve the gut microflora, yet they are listed as optional ingredients.

Deciding on the right baby formula

A mom is feeding her newborn baby formula milk.

Deciding on what formula to use can be tough because there are so many brands to choose from. What makes matters worse is the price difference between the so-called top-of-the-range formulas and inexpensive yet well-known formulas, which can be as much as double the price. There are also generic versions of well-known brands that are cheaper and just add to your already confusion.

You also have the choice of powder formula or pre-mixed, ready-to-feed liquid where the powder formula is less expensive but requires accurate mixing with the right water as not all tap water is palatable or fit for prolonged human consumption.

The best approach is to discuss your little one’s needs with your paediatrician before considering the price, as it does not always relate to quality. Your paediatrician will be familiar with your baby’s condition and health history, so you can rest assured that the formula recommendations will serve you and your baby well.

You will then have to do a bit of research to match the given advice with formula types or brands and when you find the right formula, stick with it for as long as your little one enjoys it, and you can see developmental progress. Should you want to change the formula for whatever reason, speak to your pediatrician first. In this way, you will always get a professional opinion to guide your decisions.

The cost of formula

Formula pricing has been in the spotlight due to sharp price increases over recent years. For example, in Singapore, a 900gram tin of formula sells for between S$35 and $55, and statistics reveal that the price of formula has increased by 120% over the last decade, but this drastic increase is not isolated to Singapore alone.  

What the Competition Commission of Singapore discovered is that there are no real anti-competitive practices taking place, but there are very shroud marketing programs in place.

This includes establishing a foothold with new mothers in a hospital to prefer a specific brand over others. For example, milk products are sponsored to private hospitals, and this helps to promote the brand as a premium product. As a result, mothers will usually stick with the brand when they leave the hospital, even if it is more expensive.

An observation you may find interesting is that “formula sold in Singapore is said to meet the nutritional needs of babies and can be used as part of a balanced diet.” I think this is a global issue but notice the use of the words “part of a balanced diet.”

In many cases, mothers resort to formula-feeding their babies out of necessity and the little ones may not have reached the age where they can eat solids, so the formula will be their only source of nutrition. Not very comforting, is it?

Price does not dictate the quality of the formula, so don’t be fooled into believing the hype. Instead, make it your mission to see exactly what the formula is made of and match it to your little one’s nutritional needs.

You may find that an inexpensive formula works great, but you may still have to periodically add supplements to your baby’s feeding program, obviously being advised by your pediatrician.

Are inflated prices justified?

An infant baby boy is holding his bottle and drinking formula milk by himself.

If there is proven benefit to the health and development of infants, then the answer will be yes, but an ingredient like DHA that is added to some brands will not offer any real benefit. This is the finding of health authorities and scientists across the globe who state that the scientific evidence for any real benefit is weak.

This is not to say that DHA is not necessary because it is. During pregnancy, DHA accumulates in your baby’s brain and retina and is required neural and visual development. It is also found in breastmilk.

Inflated pricing goes back to research, to the continuing effort in trying to replicate the wholesome goodness of breastmilk in formula. Research costs a lot of money, as do marketing campaigns, and all this is slotted into profitable business models.

Weigh up the cost

A year’s worth of formula can cost anywhere between $1200 and $2000, yet many mothers have added up costs of breastfeeding and come to similar or greater values. This includes the costs of a breast pump and the appropriate clothing as well as medical and sanitary supplies.

I agree that breastfeeding is not totally free, and as mothers, we do incur costs along the way that may even equal the cost of formula, but the fact remains that we are all geared to give our little ones the very best that we can.

At the end of the day, most of us will still have to balance our budget to provide for our babies, and the rising costs of formula make for challenging times.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Does formula cause constipation?

In some cases, constipation occurs in the transition between breastmilk and formula. This is because breastmilk has a natural laxative that regulates stool consistency, whereas formula, if not mixed correctly (too little water), may cause constipation, and your baby’s poop will usually be firmer with formula. Follow the formula mixing instructions and consult your pediatrician if the problem persists.

What water is best to mix with powdered formula?

Not all tap water is fit for consumption, and that’s why bottled water is in such demand; however, tap water that is fluoridated is okay to use. Bottled water is great but can be expensive in the long run. If you are not sure of your water source, it will be best to have it tested just to be sure there is no Botulism causing bacteria in it. As a precaution, you can boil tap water and store it in your fridge, so you have a safe supply for your baby’s formula.

How do I know my formula choice is good for my baby?

You will have obviously noted the ingredients of the formula and also taken the advice of your pediatrician into account when selecting the formula. If your baby drinks the formula as he/she would when breastfeeding and appears happy and content, then the formula is fine. You will still have to monitor the number of wet and soiled diapers to make sure that bowel movements are normal, and you will note your baby is reaching growth and developmental milestones. The same observations apply to formula-fed babies as they do to breast-fed babies.

Hi! I'm Jennely. My hands and mind can't be still; neither can my three-year-old. So I'm either chasing him or my next project. I like to work smarter, not harder. This is why I write on topics that will help parents solve problems and enjoy precious moments with their little ones.

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