Toddler Formula: What's the deal?

You likely already know that breastmilk and infant formula are the only drinks you should give your baby. Up until close to the age of one, it’s really all a baby needs to get the nutrition and hydration they need to thrive. No doubt as you’ve perused the baby food aisle, you’ve noticed they sell toddler formula as well. So it’s no wonder that you’re curious to know if this is the next nutritional step for your little one as they transition to toddlerhood. 

As your young child grows, there is a lot to navigate when it comes to their nutrition. From starting those first solids, to moving away from infant formula or breastmilk and giving them the healthiest start to toddlerhood, we know you want to get it right. So in this article we’ll explore toddler formula and find out if it’s an ideal option or simply just a gimmick (or worse) your child doesn't need.

Toddler Formula Overview

Infant formula (for babies from 0 - 12 months) and toddler formula (for children ages 1 - 3 years) are clearly labeled differently, but what about the ingredients? Let's take a look at how these products compare.

The Enfamil brand is one that we highlight in our best infant formulas article, so I’ve chosen to compare one of their infant formulas to their toddler formula.

Enfamil Infant vs. Toddler Formula Comparison

Enfamil NeuroPro Infant Formula Ingredients: Water, Nonfat Milk, Lactose, Vegetable Oil (Palm Olein, Soy, Coconut, And High Oleic Sunflower Oils) (The additional ingredients make up less than 2%.) 

Enfagrow Toddler Nutritional Drink Ingredients: Nonfat Milk, Corn Syrup Solids, Vegetable Oil (Palm Olein, Coconut, Soy, And High Oleic Sunflower Oils) (The additional ingredients make up less than 2%.) 

In looking at the two side by side, we can see that they are similar, but certainly not the same. You can see that the second ingredient listed in the toddler “formula” is corn syrup solids. According to Tastyganics, the purpose of corn syrup in any formula is to replace the natural sugar lactose (which you can see that the toddler drink is lacking). There is also less nonfat milk in infant formula than toddler formula, but more water.

The truth is that though the ingredients do seem similar, infant formula and toddler formula are actually very different. And whereas infant formulas have to follow strict preparation and nutritional guidelines as set by the FDA, toddler formulas do not.  Because of that, as well as the ingredient differences, it’s important to note that giving your baby under 12 months of age the toddler version is not safe.

Toddler nutritional/formula drinks are marketed as the perfect transition from infant formula as your baby moves into toddlerhood. But is that actually true?

Do toddlers need toddler formula?

Though you’ve heard from the experts and likely your doctor that whole milk is what you’re supposed to give your little one after their first birthday, the fact that toddler formulas are available for purchase can be confusing. 

We even share in our article, “How to Transition Your 1-Year-Old to Whole Milk,” that whole milk offers an ideal nutritional profile to toddlers after their first birthday. And many mothers choose to continue to breastfeed, which is a great choice as well. 

Clearly, most toddlers don’t need toddler formula, and it costs more, too. But the Atlantic shares that it’s the fastest-growing category of breast-milk substitutes, so what gives?

Powerful marketing makes it seem to parents like toddler formula is the clear next choice once a baby is past the infant formula stage. But toddler formulas are ultimately an unhealthier and more expensive substitute for plain old whole milk. 

Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend toddler formulas or “nutrition drinks” as a suitable source of nutrition for young children. In fact, the resounding consensus across the medical community is that most toddlers, unless they have an allergy, need to be drinking fortified whole cow’s milk. 

Drawbacks of Toddler Formula

It’s clear that the experts agree that toddler formulas aren’t anything you need to give your little one and that you shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. But they aren’t simply saying you don’t need to spend the extra money on toddler formula, they share that whole cow’s milk is superior and that toddler formula can actually be detrimental to your child’s health. 

Healthy Children, the AAP’s publication, writes that “toddler milks are unnecessary and potentially harmful to young children.” This is because added sugars that are not naturally occurring, such as those in cow’s milk, can lead to obesity and can deter children from enjoying healthier foods.

Of course the companies who make and distribute the toddler drinks with clever messaging such as “immune support” and “brain and eye development” can lead parents to believe this is what they should be giving their toddler. But the nutritional profile of milk, with its contents made of calcium, fat and protein, already provides the essential nutrients a child under the age of 2 requires for proper growth and development.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. This article from Verywell Family quotes Samantha Radford, Phd as saying, “Parents are told that toddler formula is there to ‘fill in the nutritional gaps’ for picky eaters, but there is no reason this is necessary.”

So, if not toddler formula, what are the best foods and drinks to give your little one after their first birthday?

What to Feed Your Toddler Instead of Toddler Formula

Simply put, toddler formula falls into the category of "processed food" and it’s just not something that needs to be in their diet. And similar to fruit juices, giving these to your little one just gives them added sugar that isn’t the healthiest option. Here’s what you can give your child under age 3 instead.

Ages 1 - 2

Beverages: Water and whole cow’s milk (ideally fortified with vitamin D) or Breastmilk only. Full fat dairy offers the optimum nutrients for your child to grow and develop. (If your child has a milk allergy or want to raise them with a vegan diet, Healthline gives some alternatives to whole mil in this article.)

It’s important to remember that milk is just a supplement to your child’s diet at this age, and according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, should be drinking between 10 - 24 ounces per day. Utilizing a sippy cup that is easy for your child to handle and enjoys using, such as this one from the Baby’s Brew, will help transition your baby from using a bottle during this time, as well.

Foods: Whereas up until age 1, infant formula or breastmilk made up the majority of your little one’s nutrition, in toddlerhood most nutrition should come from a range of healthy, solid foods. Be sure to introduce your toddler to lots of different options so they can try lots of different tastes and textures and get the nutrients they need. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, lean proteins, plant oils, seeds and nuts are all great foods for your little one.

Ages 2 and Up

Beverages: Ideally only water and cow’s milk. The recommended amount of milk at this age doesn’t change much, about 10 - 20 ounces is ideal, but you can start giving them low fat or skim milk instead. Before making the switch, however, we recommend getting the go ahead from your doctor. 

Foods: At this point, your child should be eating whatever else the family is eating. It’s no secret that toddlers can be picky and will try to stand their ground on what they will and won’t eat, but be sure to encourage healthy eating as much as you can by giving them nutritious options.

RELATED: Best Snack Cups for Toddlers in 2021

Toddler Formula Takeaway

We as parents try to give our children the very best. So when toddler formula is sitting right next to the can of infant formula that you know is healthy for your baby, it’s only natural to assume that it’s what you should give your child next. But whole cow’s milk is the only drink your toddler needs besides water, and if you have any doubt, check with your doctor. Less expensive AND healthier? That’s a win in our book for sure.

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