Why You Should Never Make Your Own Baby Formula

Why You Should Never Make Your Own Baby Formula
Photo: New Africa, Shutterstock

When you make food for yourself, there’s never much harm in experimenting. Even if you completely screw up the recipe, you can probably still eat it and not die. Now imagine that one homemade recipe were literally the only food you were allowed to eat for six months. The stakes are a bit higher now, aren’t they?

Adult humans have subsisted on less-than-ideal foods without developing serious health problems; we addressed that question in this post about whether you can get scurvy from eating nothing but ramen. But when you’re talking about a baby — a tiny person whose sole job is to double in size during their first five months of life — the exact nutrition they get really matters.

Or, to quote the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP):

The first year of life is a key time for your baby’s brain and body to grow. If your baby doesn’t get enough of the important parts of infant formula — even for a few days or weeks — they can suffer long-term effects on their abilities grow strong and do well in school. Lack of these nutrients can lead to severe health problems and even death.

The Food and Drug Administration recently sent out an advisory noting that they have recently received reports of babies needing to be hospitalized because they had low levels of calcium in their blood due to drinking homemade formula.

The FDA approves store-bought baby formula, requiring that the finished formula be tested for nutritional content (to make sure that the nutrients in the ingredients actually made it through the manufacturing process) and that formula companies have demonstrated that their products promote healthy growth in babies. The FDA does not do the same for recipes for homemade formulas.

So if you’ve seen a recipe passed around social media that somebody says their grandma used back in the day…well, nobody has actually verified that that recipe is healthy or appropriate for your baby. A 2020 survey of homemade formula recipes from blogs found that many included harmful or inappropriate ingredients, and in many cases their instructions didn’t include enough information for people to be able to handle the formula safely (for example, guidance on how long it keeps in the fridge).

Why is it so hard to make a good formula?

Formula provides nutrition that’s equivalent to what a baby gets from human breastmilk. Human milk is nutritionally quite different from cow’s or goat’s milk, or other dairy products or substitutes. Cow’s milk has too much protein and not enough iron or vitamin C. Goat’s milk is too high in protein, potassium, and chloride, and doesn’t have enough folate. Babies have developed vitamin deficiencies, electrolyte imbalances, and other health problems from drinking animal milks and homemade formulas.

The AAP details some of these differences here, and notes that a baby over 6 months of age can have some cow’s milk as a stopgap if you can’t find enough formula. Younger babies really do need breastmilk or commercial formula.

Older recipes for formulas usually included a few grocery store ingredients, like cow’s milk and corn syrup, which probably got some nutrients into the rough ballpark of human milk — but that doesn’t mean they were good, or even necessarily good enough. Do you know if your grandma’s recipe has a safe amount of, say, selenium? I didn’t think so.

Now, should the FDA approve formula recipes, perhaps testing and distributing an appropriate recipe that people could use to make formula at home? That would be pretty cool, honestly! (Assuming, of course, that a nutritionally adequate formula could be made from commonly available ingredients. Maybe it can’t.) But at present, there simply is not a good, tested recipe out there. Instead of making your own formula, we have safe suggestions for navigating the formula shortage here, including doctor-approved stopgaps. And if you’re desperate enough to make your own formula, please get in touch with your child’s paediatrician to talk about your options.

 

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