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Toddler Formulas; Are they needed in a toddler's diet?

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

Author: Anna Ritan, APD, BND Clinical Paediatric Dietitian

Working out if your child needs a toddler formula can be confusing, especially when toddler formula marketing preys on parental concern over their child's growth and development. Toddler formula marketing is very one-sided and can easily have you believe that your child needs a follow-on drink.

Here are some points covered in this post from a Clinical Paediatric Dietitian.

- After 12 months Toddler formula is not a nutritional requirement

- They can be 4 x more expensive than full cream cow's milk

-They contain less protein and fat, nutrients essential for growth, than full cream cow's milk and more sugar

- They can be heavily marketed in Australia

- They won't help with fussy eating

Toddler Formula Marketing

Toddler formulas can be heavily marketed in Australia and there is minimal regulation on what the products can and should provide to toddlers.

Infant formula products are regulated under Standard 2.9.1 – Infant Formula Products in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (the Code). All commercially produced infant formula products available in Australia and New Zealand must comply with the composition and safety requirements outlined in the Code. Standard 2.9.1 specifies the mandatory nutrient content for infant formula and follow-on formula (6-12 months) to ensure that the nutrition requirements of infants aged up to 12 months are met, however, toddler formula is not regulated under this code.

Toddler formulas are heavily marketed by formula companies with celebrity endorsements and Instagram content (among others) as a way to promote their brand and build brand awareness. This allows them to bypass infant formula advertising regulations. In Australia (and other countries) infant formula advertising can be regulated under the MAIF 'Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas: Manufacturers and Importers Agreement' which is a voluntary and self-regulated code for manufacturers and importers of infant formula in Australia. The agreement aims to encourage breastfeeding as a first option and that those participating companies must not advertise or promote infant formula.

Nutritional Composition

Healthy growing toddlers can meet their requirements for growth, and for vitamins and minerals through food, and for some, with the inclusion of breastmilk, cow's milk, or a milk substitute

When you compare the difference there are minimal benefits to using toddler formula over a full cream cow's milk if your baby is transitioning from standard infant formula, especially at 4-10 times the cost.

Full cream cow's milk actually contains more protein and more fat, two nutrients essential for growth.

Toddler milk does contain some added iron and small amounts of other vitamins and minerals but toddlers can meet their nutritional requirements from food, and these levels of vitamins and minerals are not regulated in toddler formula, so their benefit and even absorption would be questionable. It's much better to get vitamins and minerals from whole food.

What about breastfeeding?

  • There is no age at which breastmilk is considered nutritionally insignificant

  • Breastmilk is full of nutrition and will change over time to meet your toddler's changing needs

  • Breastmilk will continue to support immunity and support emotional needs

  • Breastfeeding beyond 12 months reduces the risk of some chronic diseases and illnesses in both the mother and child

  • There is no nutritional need to transition to cow's milk or infant formula if you are breastfeeding

  • You can continue to responsively breastfeed your toddler

What about cow's milk allergy?

  • If your child has been on a dairy-free/allergy infant formula and you can't transition to cow's milk as a drink then sometimes continuing with a specialised formula, or soy milk is recommended.

  • Milk alternatives like almond or oat milk as a drink will not provide enough protein, fat, and energy to support the requirements for growth

  • If you are excluding dairy, advice, individual support, and assessment from a paediatric dietitian are recommended to ensure adequate intake.

What if my toddler is still drinking lots of bottles per day

  • You may wish to continue with infant formula until you can wean down bottles to a total of 400 - 500 ml/day for your toddler > 12 months of age

  • Lots of formula intake or cows milk intake can make it difficult for TODDLERS to meet their requirements from food and affect their appetite

  • Toddlers need around 3-5 solids meals per day working with a predictable routine, and offer bottles away from meal times.

  • More than a maximum of 500 ml of cow's milk/per day can impact the absorption of Iron and increase the risk for iron deficiency anemia.

What about sugar in toddler formula?

The sugar content in toddler formula is not regulated along with any of the other nutritional qualities. You will find more sugar content in toddler formula than compared to full cream cow's milk.

Across toddler formula products, a 200mL serve contains on average 14g of sugar and as much as 17.8g of sugar. A 200mL serve of regular cow's milk contains 9.5g of sugar.

A 2020 VicHealth and Deakin University study found that toddlers would consume around 240g more sugar, about 60 extra teaspoons of sugar, over a month if they drank toddler milk daily compared with regular cow's milk

My child is a fussy eater?

Often supplementing with toddler formula can have the opposite effect of supporting the intake of adequate nutrients, especially if it is displacing nutrients from food and children are filling up on milk.

There are also no evidenced-based studies to show that toddler formula helps with fussy eating.

If your child is struggling with intake, has growth concerns or you are worried, individual advice from a paediatric dietitian would be recommended. In this case, there are usually other issues that have resulted in a child's general diet becoming nutritionally inadequate. Specialized supplements might be necessary, but this kind of dietary intervention needs to be done under supervision.

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