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Childhood Nutrition Experts Demand FDA Regulation of Toddler Milk Labeling

toddler drinking milk

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Key Takeaways

  • Toddler milk is marketed as a transitional formula suitable for older babies and toddlers.
  • Pediatricians and childhood nutrition experts are urging stricter regulation toddler milk labeling.
  • Parents should know exactly what these toddler formulas contain.

Baby formula companies are pushing branded milks known as "toddler formula" to parents looking to boost the nutrition of their young children, but these products can be highly misleading. A recent petition signed by 30 health and nutrition experts, including child health advocates and researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut, pressed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to pass stronger regulations for these products and how they are marketed.

Toddler formula is intended for older babies and toddlers between the ages of 9 months to 3 years. But while the labels may look nearly identical to those on infant formula, the contents couldn’t be more different.

Is Toddler Milk Nutritious?

It turns out toddler formulas are packed with unhealthy ingredients like corn syrup solids and vegetable oil, despite colorful labels promising “30 nutrients for healthy growth” and “19 nutrients for growth such as calcium, vitamin D and zinc.” Health and child nutrition experts have taken issue with these and similar claims, stating, “Current labeling of toddler milks confuses consumers and misleads parents to believe these drinks are nutritious and necessary for young children.” 

“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,” says Samantha Radford, PhD, a chemist specializing in exposure science and owner of Evidence-based Mommy. “Toddler formula is basically fortified powdered milk.” 

Samantha Radford PhD

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.

— Samantha Radford PhD

This may come as shocking news for many parents, especially those who have come to trust the quality of infant formulas. Strictly regulated by the FDA, infant formula strives to mimic the healthy compounds found in human breast milk. But those regulations don’t extend to toddler formulas, a fact most parents simply don’t realize. 

Health Experts Crack Down

A special article by researchers at the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and published in Nutrition Reviews addresses these misconceptions about the lack of nutrition in toddler formula. In it, researchers assert that the misinformation spread by formula marketing campaigns does not have the best interests of toddlers in mind, and preys on parents’ vulnerability as they try to provide the best nutrition possible for their kids. 

The article states, “Toddler milks contain more sodium and less protein than whole cow’s milk, and the added sugars in these products are not recommended for children younger than two years. However, the marketing for these sweetened milk products positions them as a solution for caregivers concerned about their toddlers’ nutrition."

In light of this, experts are now calling on the FDA to establish stricter regulations around the labeling of these so-called “healthy” products for kids.

In addition to the lack of nutrition toddler milks provide, another concern is that parents may mistakenly purchase toddler milks for infants due to the deceptively similar labeling. That would be dangerous since infants' immature digestive systems cannot handle cow's milk, which toddler formula contains in a powdered form. 

AAP Recommends Avoiding Toddler Milk

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises parents to skip the toddler formula stage altogether, calling toddler milk “unnecessary and potentially harmful to young children.” Instead, the organization encourages parents to offer only cow’s milk and water as beverages during the first two years of life (once breastfeeding or bottle feeding comes to an end, of course). “Otherwise,” says Radford, “kids fill up on sweetened beverages like toddler formula, and as a result, they're less likely to experiment with healthy foods.”

Despite how difficult it can be to keep your toddler’s eating and drinking habits on track (especially when you have older kids in the house), toddler formula simply isn’t the answer. Instead, it pays to be consistent when it comes to moving your little one on to the next phase.

Easing the Transition

Once you think your toddler is ready to make the transition from breastmilk or formula to cow’s milk, it’s fine to take things slow. Here are some tips you can try in order to ease the transition without having to turn to toddler formula: 

  • Offer milk in a special cup to make it exciting, and even if your toddler resists, just keep trying each day without forcing the issue.
  • Start with yogurt rather than milk (since it has already been partially digested by bacteria during the fermentation process).
  • Hold off on cow’s milk and offer water instead, especially if you’re still nursing on occasion or if your toddler enjoys other sources of dairy, like yogurt or cheese.

What This Means For You

Unless formula manufacturers commit to making toddler formula a healthier option, it's best to skip it. Don't put pressure on yourself or your little one to transition from breast or bottle; take it slow and when they're ready, offer milk and water in a cup. And remember, always offer a wider variety of healthy foods to allow your toddler to experiment on their own.

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Article Sources
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  1. Messina K. UConn Today. Public Health, Nutrition Experts Call on Companies to Stop Misleading Labeling of ‘Toddler Milks’. July 28, 2020.

  2. Khazan O. The Atlantic. The Ominous Rise of Toddler Milk. February 4, 2020.

  3. Enfamil. Enfagrow® Toddler Products - Which one is right for my toddler?.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Infant Formula Guidance Documents & Regulatory Information. Updated May 8, 2019.

  5. World Health Organization. World Health Assembly Resolution on the Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children. November 2016. 

  6. Harris JL, Pomeranz JL. Infant formula and toddler milk marketing: opportunities to address harmful practices and improve young children's diets. Nutr Rev. 2020. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuz095

  7. American Academy of Pediatrics. Why Formula Instead of Cow's Milk?. Updated July 12, 2018.

  8. Muth ND. American Academy of Pediatrics. Recommended Drinks for Young Children Ages 0-5. Updated September 18, 2018.

  9. Scientific American. Semisolid Science: Growing Yogurt. December 13, 2012.