We use cookies to allow us and selected partners to improve your experience and our advertising. By continuing to browse you consent to our use of cookies. You can understand more and change your cookies preferences here.

Baby & child.

Updated: 29 Jun 2021

Breastfeeding vs formula milk

This guide looks at the benefits of breastfeeding and answers parents concerns when they enter the formula market by helping you choose the right formula.
Which?Editorial team
Breastfeeding 438589

The evidence is pretty conclusive that breast milk offers your baby the best start in life. It offers protection from ear and chest infections, and breastfed babies have a lower risk of being obese in later life. It also provides health benefits for the mother, such as reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as being free.

Current guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) advise that all babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months and then breast-fed alongside weaning. If you want to be able to express milk for your baby to be fed later, a breast pump can make this process easier. Make sure you choose the most comfortable and easy-to-use model by reading our breast pump reviews before you buy.

Exclusive breastfeeding: Plans vs reality

Most mums plan to breastfeed when they have a baby and they don’t expect to use formula. However, the reality is that many do end up using some formula – 71% of mothers we surveyed had used infant formula to some extent for babies under six months old.

When they decided to use formula milk, mothers told us they had a number of questions:

  • 56% wanted to know what the difference is between different formula milk brands
  • 46% wanted to know how formula milk compares with breast milk
  • 27% wanted to know if price reflected quality.

Most weren’t satisfied that they had received enough information.

Formula milks: what's available?

A wide range of baby milks have come on to the UK market in recent years, all claiming to be the ideal choice for babies and toddlers. Formula milks are now tailored for different age groups starting from birth to six months, and up to three years old. There are four main brands of formula in the UK: Aptamil, Cow & Gate, Hipp Organic and SMA. Aptamil and Cow & Gate are both owned by Danone.

There are a wide range of products within these four brands. These include first milk (also known as infant milk or infant formula); milk for hungrier babies; milk for premature babies; milk for babies with cow’s milk allergy (CMA); comfort milk; lactose-free milk; anti-reflux milk; good night milk; follow-on milk; and growing-up and toddler milks.

Despite each brand of formula having a range of products, the ones you’re most likely to use are:

All formula milks are a mix of proteins (derived from cow’s or goat’s milk), fat (mainly vegetable oils), carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and the actual composition of infant formula and follow-on formulas is strictly regulated under The UK Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula (England) Regulations 2007.

Government advice on infant feeding

The complexity of the formula milk market can be confusing for parents. This complexity contrasts strongly with the simplicity of government advice, which is:

  • Exclusively feed with breast milk for six months, if that isn’t possible use infant formula
  • There’s no need to use follow-on formula after six months
  • Infant formula, follow-on formula or growing-up milk is not needed after 12 months when whole cow’s milk can be used.