Breast Milk vs Formula

One of the earliest choices a parent often makes for their newborn child is whether to feed them with breast milk or formula. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that many parents also want to know which one is better, and how closely formula mimics natural breast milk.

We appreciate that while breast milk is the ideal choice for newborn babies, it is not always possible or preferred by the mother. So, let’s take a look at how formula stacks up against the real thing.

What is in Breast Milk?

Breast milk is specifically created by your body to meet the exact needs of your newborn baby for roughly a 12-month period, and it even changes as your baby grows, constantly providing exactly what the child needs at that age. The milk itself is made up of a combination of water, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, fats, and minerals, just like any milk.

Believe it or not, the nutritional stats of your breast milk can vary depending on what time of day it is and how long you have been lactating. That being said, scientists have still been able to determine an average level of micronutrients and macronutrients within the milk, based on an analysis of a wide variation of mothers.

Formulas always look to mimic breast milk as closely as possible, but some ingredients cannot be copied, no matter how hard they true. These include hormones, antibodies, and bioactive molecules that help to mature immune systems.

What is in Formula?

As we explained above, formula is not an exact copy of breast milk, but it is a carefully designed composition of the majority of helpful things found within the original. Just like breast milk, it is made up of a combination of water, carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, fats, and minerals. In this case, the fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids like DHA and ARA. To copy the parts of breast milk that boost immune systems, formula uses probiotics and prebiotics. Formula also looks to mimic the calorie count found within natural breast milk, as this dictates how much energy a baby has.

Rest assured, all the helpful nutrients found in breast milk are also copied over into the formula alternatives. These include Manganese, Potassium, Pantothenic acid, Choline, Linolenic acid, Linoleic acid, Inositol, Vitamin C, Vitamin K1, Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin E, Vitamin D3, Selenium, Phosphorus, Biotin, Magnesium, Chloride, Iron, Sodium, Niacin, Copper, Calcium, Folic acid, Zinc, Iodine.


The two main types of protein found within milk, in general, are casein and whey. The latter is easier to digest and absorb because of how small it is, compared to the larger casein protein which takes longer for a baby’s body to break down. At the start of a mother’s lactation period, the milk has a lot more whey than casein (90%/10%), because newborn babies need a protein they can break down and absorb fast. However, this transforms to around 60% whey protein and 40% casein as time goes on.

As such, the leading formula brands also provide staged products, with different ratios of protein depending on how old your baby is. The majority of Holle products are generally 50/50 when it comes to whey and casein, while HiPP and Kendamil opt for 60/40. The Holle goat’s milk range does not include any extra whey, so it contains the natural ratio of goat’s milk, which is 20/80. However, this should not be an issue as goat’s milk casein is easier to break down than cow’s milk casein.


The levels of fatty acids within breast milk depend on the mother in question and their specific diet. Having said that, all breast milk contains some level of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated, palmitic, stearic, lauric, oleic, palmitoleic, and maccanico fatty acids. You can also find omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids like DHA and AA/ARA respectively. Fatty acids are important for the growth and development of your baby.

Formulas mimic these combinations of fatty acids found in breast milk using a mixture of oils, often choosing skimmed milk over whole milk because oil can then be added. Vegetable oils actually contain many of the same fatty acids as breast milk. Just because you see skimmed milk on a label does not mean the formula is missing the necessary fat, so don’t worry about that. That being said, there are whole milk options on the market too. The fatty acids usually found in formulas include alpha-linolenic, oleic, palmitic, linoleic, and stearic acids.

In Europe, all formula products must now include the omega-3 fatty acid, DHA, which comes from fish oil. DHA helps cognitive development and keeps your baby’s brain nice and healthy. Some products use algae oil instead as a vegetarian alternative.


The main sugar found in the majority of milks, including breast milk, is lactose. The same main sugar is also found in goat’s milk and cow’s milk, which are used to make formula. Lactose is a great energy source for your baby, so it is an important ingredient to copy over from breast milk to formula. It doesn’t matter what types of carbohydrates are in them, breast milk and formula both generally have 100ml in total. 

However, breast milk contains a lot more carbohydrates in general when compared to milk from cows and goats. As such, formulas need a variety of extra carbohydrates in order to mimic the original. Extra lactose and maltodextrin are common additions.

HiPP likes to add enough lactose until the levels are as close to breast milk as possible, while Holle (apart from PRE formulas) uses maltodextrin because it is easy for babies to break down. It closely resembles the starch you see in common foods like potatoes.

In Conclusion

The nutritional value of breast milk and formula is very similar, because experts specifically design the latter to mimic the former as closely as possible. This covers the levels of carbohydrates, calories, fat, protein, nutrients, and the impacts of each one. There is some variation, but the general idea is to create a formula that has all the same benefits as the real thing. So, you can rest easy knowing that formula is a very viable option for your baby.