What’s the Difference Between HUman Milk and Formula?

Baby being held by parent and given a bottle of milk or formula.

With so much conflicting information about formula and human milk, you might be wondering, what’s the difference between the two, and what’s best for you and your baby? The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends exclusive breastfeeding for your baby’s first 6 months and to continue for up to two years (1). That being said, breast or chestfeeding might not always be the best choice for everyone. In this blog post we’ll be breaking down what’s the difference between human milk and formula, as well as the pros and cons for both.


What’s in Formula?

Infant formula, although not identical, is made to mimic the nutrition profile of human milk in order to support normal infant growth and development (2). Cow’s milk or soy milk is used as the base for most formulas. In addition, iron, nucleotides (what DNA is made of) along with fatty acids and sometimes probiotics are also added to complete the nutrient profile (2). Soy milk is used as a plant-based option, mainly for babies who aren’t able to tolerate a cow’s milk formula(2). Hypoallergenic formulas are used for babies who are unable to tolerate cow’s milk or soy milk (2).


Formula Pros and Cons

Here are some pros and cons to choosing formula (1). 


  • Helps feed babies who are unable to latch 
  • Helps parents who can’t breast or chest feed due to medical reasons
  • You can monitor how much your baby eats
  • Other family members can be involved in bonding during feeding time


  • It doesn’t give the same protection against disease, infection, and hormones as human milk
  • Formula, bottles, and rubber nipples can be expensive
  • Takes more time to prepare
  • It can sometimes cause constipation and gas 
  • Formula requires access to clean water which may not be accessible for all parents


What’s in Human Milk?

Human milk comes prepackaged with all the nutrients and hormones your baby needs to be healthy. Within the first few days after birth, human milk contains nutrient rich colostrum. In addition, it contains carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, digestive enzymes, and immune cells(2). The type and amount of certain proteins change during the different stages of lactation (3). As well, human milk contains all essential vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, B6, B12, iodine and low amounts of vitamin D (3). It  also contains a certain type of sugar that helps to fight off bacteria and develop a diverse and balanced environment in the gut to help to support your baby’s immune system (2). Premature and low-birth weight babies are recommended to have human milk and if not available, donor milk is recommended (2).


Human Milk Pros and Cons

Here are some of the pros and cons of human milk (1). 


  • It’s free (other than the cost of pumps and lactation consultants)
  • Parents can benefit:
    • Releases hormones like oxytocin which help you bond with your baby
    • Can help you retain iron by keeping your period from returning (this may not be the same experience for all parents)
    • Lowers your risk of getting breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease and diabetes
    • Lowers your risk of developing postpartum depression
  • It’s ready when your baby is 


              • May be uncomfortable, especially during the first few days or weeks
              • Parents should be mindful of caffeine, medication, and alcohol intake
              • Can be inconvenient if you have a busy schedule 
              • Pumps can help with this


                    Important Things to Consider with Human Milk

                    Infants under one year of age shouldn’t be fed raw or unpasteurized milk as a replacement for formula or human milk (2). Keep in mind, if choosing to feed your baby human milk it’s recommended to supplement with vitamin D and K since human milk doesn’t have enough for your baby (2). If you’re wanting to learn more on how to feed your baby human milk and formula, visit our blog post for some feeding tips.

                    Final Notes from The Nest

                    Both formula and human milk provide  the necessary nutrients for your baby to grow and develop. Choosing between formula and human milk is ultimately your choice and you should choose what’s best for you and your baby.  If you’re wondering what formula is best, or what choice is best for you and your baby, please book a free consultation with one of our registered dietitians.

                    Article Written by Miranda Inger

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                    1. Goldman R. Pros and cons of breastfeeding: Is it right for you? [Internet]. Healthline Media; 2020 [cited 2023 Jul 7]. Available from: 
                    2. 1. Martin C, Ling P-R, Blackburn G. Review of infant feeding: Key features of breast milk and infant formula. Nutrients. 2016;8(5):279. doi:10.3390/nu8050279
                    3. Ballard O, Morrow AL. Human milk composition: Nutrients and Bioactive Factors. Pediatric Clinics of North America. 2013;60(1):49–74. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2012.10.002