Health Risks of Homemade Infant Formula

Contributors: Farryl Bertmann, PhD, RDN and Caroline Glagola Dunn, PhD, RDN and Elizabeth F. Racine, DrPH, RDN and Sheila Fleischhacker, PhD, JD, RDN
homemade infant formula

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You may have seen online blogs and social media accounts sharing recipes for homemade infant formula in response to infant formula shortages. It is strongly recommended that infants not be fed homemade formula as this is not safe for many reasons. Parents and caregivers may not realize the potential harm that could occur from using homemade infant formula — putting a child's health, or even life, at risk.

  • Inadequate Nutrition: Homemade infant formulas often fail to meet standards for nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fat or vitamins and minerals. As a result, they may provide less than recommended amounts or more than an infant can tolerate. For example, homemade infant formula may not contain enough iron, putting infants at increased risk for anemia. Homemade formulas often do not provide enough vitamin D, a risk factor for the development of rickets, a softening and weakening of bones. Other nutrition concerns may include too much vitamin A, which may lead to liver damage or not enough vitamin C, a risk for scurvy.

    While infant formulas may be based on cow's milk or soy, there are significant steps taken during manufacturing to make the protein, carbohydrate and fats more digestible. Substituting infant formula with powdered or liquid milk—whether animal or plant-based—can irritate an infant's gastrointestinal tract and may cause bleeding, discomfort and bowel changes.  The concentration of nutrients in commercially prepared formulas is an important aspect of infant nutrition that cannot be replicated by families at home.
  • Kidney Health, Electrolyte Balance and Potential for Dehydration: Our kidneys perform many important functions, such as removing waste products from the blood and regulating and balancing fluids in the body. For newborns and infants, the kidneys are not yet fully developed and special nutritional care is needed to prevent damaging them. Ingredients in homemade infant formulas may increase the burden on the kidneys and result in dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, both of which can be serious for an infant and may disrupt normal growth and development.
  • Food Safety Risks: Ingredients frequently used in homemade infant formulas and improper food handling can both pose a food safety risk. Raw (unpasteurized) milk, a popular ingredient in many homemade infant formulas, is not regulated in all states and has been linked to bacterial infections and can cause severe kidney problems and even death. In addition to unsafe ingredients, poor food handling, improper cleaning of equipment and inadequate storage also may increase risk of foodborne illness, which is especially risky for infants who have yet to fully develop their immune systems. Improperly stored breastmilk and incorrectly prepared or stored commercial formula also pose food safety risks for babies.
  • Allergic Reactions: Homemade infant formulas can introduce certain foods too early, putting infants at increased risk of food allergies. At around 4 to 6 months of age, children can start to show signs of readiness for solid foods, but they will still require breastmilk or iron-fortified infant formula. Check with your pediatrician before introducing solid foods.

Read more tips on infant formula safety and for personalized nutrition guidance, including specialists in pediatric nutrition and community health, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist.

This article is intended to provide practitioners and the public with information believed to be current and accurate at the time of posting. It is not intended as, nor should be construed as legal, medical or consulting advice.

Source: The Risk of Homemade Infant Formulas: Historical and Contemporary Considerations” (Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2021)


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