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Do toddler formulas deliver on nutrition claims?

Claire McCarthy, M.D., Harvard Health Blog on

Published in Health & Fitness

Once babies are a year old, those who have been drinking infant formula don’t need it anymore. By that age, they can and should get most of their nutritional needs met by solid foods. Drinking cow’s milk, or a fortified plant milk such as soy milk, is perfectly fine. And honestly, they don’t even need that much of it.

A 2023 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) looked closely at what toddlers actually need for healthy growth and development — and toddler milks didn’t make the cut. Here are a few key takeaways for parents.

Is toddler formula more nutritious than milk?

No. But for some parents, it feels odd and uncomfortable to stop formula and give cow’s milk. They feel like formula is more nutritious and maybe even more easily digested. That may not be surprising: a lot of marketing money has encouraged people to think this way.

So it’s understandable that some parents turn to formulas marketed for toddlers. It’s especially understandable given the claims that formula companies make about the nutritional advantages of toddler formula. You may have seen — or bought — these products marketed purely as “follow-up formulas,” “transition formulas,” or “growing-up milks.” These formulas do not have a medical purpose. They simply help companies keep the customers they would otherwise lose once babies turn a year old.

Not only are toddler formulas unnecessary, some of them are actually worse than cow’s milk. That’s the main message shared by the AAP, which hopes to help parents understand what older infants and toddlers actually need— and see through the marketing claims.

 

Do some toddlers need specialized formulas?

Yes. Just to be clear, I am not talking about specialized formulas for children over 12 months who have digestive, metabolic, or other medical problems.

Are toddler formulas regulated in any way?

No. Because infant formulas must meet all the nutritional requirements of babies less than 12 months of age, they are regulated by the FDA. The FDA has requirements about what they must and must not contain, and it makes sure that the facilities where infant formulas are made are regularly inspected.

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