Toddler Formula: What Parents Need To Know

Should you give your little one toddler formula? And if not, what should you feed them instead when they outgrow infant formula? Find out here.

What to do when your formula-fed baby reaches their first birthday?

Most baby formulas are meant for infants up to one year of age, so you’re likely thinking about transitioning your little one off it. But what should you give your rising toddler instead?

You may have heard of toddler formula. Made by the same manufacturers as popular baby formulas, it’s designed for toddlers who are leaving the infant formula behind.

But will toddler formula meet the nutritional needs of your little one? Or should you skip it – and if so, what should you give your toddler instead?

Today, we’ll break down what parents need to know about toddler formula, so you can make the best choice for you.

What is toddler formula?

Toddler formula (sometimes called “transitional formula” or “toddler milk”) is designed for older babies and toddlers who are transitioning – or have transitioned – off of infant formula. It’s marketed for children 9 months to 3 years of age.

Like infant formula, toddler formula is a powder-based formula designed to supply nutrients. But as it's for older babies and toddlers, the nutrient mix is different from the nutrients in infant formula.

This sounds appealing, but toddler formulas aren’t as nutritious as they appear.

Learn more about toddler formula from 1,000 Days:

Here’s why you shouldn’t pick up cans of toddler formula for your little one:

Medical experts don’t recommend toddler formula

Many medical organizations, experts and reports affirm that toddlers don't need toddler formula. Rather, toddler formula is mostly a way for formula manufacturers to keep selling formula after children have outgrown the infant kind (or outgrown breastmilk).

An expert panel, which included representatives from the American Academy of Pediatrics and other leading health organizations, doesn't recommend toddler formula for children of any age.

According to the panel, babies 9-12 months should still be drinking breastmilk or infant formula as needed, while consuming healthy solids.

And children 1-5 years of age should have all their nutritional needs met with appropriate solid foods (more on this below.)

Here's more from the experts:

"Toddler drinks are... marketed for young children 9-36 months old. Medical experts do not recommend them...The toddler drink category includes… transition formulas… and toddler milks." -- 2018 report published in PubMed

"Follow-up or weaning formulas offer no clear advantage for [babies and toddlers] consuming sufficient amounts of iron- and vitamin-containing solid food. Moreover, some toddler milks or transition formulas have added… sweeteners.

The expert panel... concluded that [toddler formulas] offer no unique nutritional value beyond what could be obtained with healthy foods." -- 2019 AAP expert panel

Toddlers don’t need toddler formula to meet their nutritional needs

As the AAP and other medical experts affirm, toddler formulas don't add anything beneficial to your little one's diet that they can't access in other ways.

By feeding your child a healthy and age-appropriate diet of solids, they'll get all the nutrients they need.

Be sure the diet prioritizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, and focuses on foods rich in protein, iron, and vitamins. And keep exposing your child to the foods so they're more likely to accept them.

"In general, there is no advantage to a toddler formula, as long as your toddler is consuming an age-appropriate regular diet with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables." -- Dr. George J. Fuchs (University of Kentucky; AAP Committee on nutrition), for Parents Magazine

Following the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) dietary guidelines for toddlers 1-2 years of age will ensure your little one gets enough essential nutrients. Here's a brief breakdown:

  • Feed a variety of foods from all healthy food groups.
  • Prioritize a diverse mix of fruits and vegetables.
  • Offer many colors and types of vegetables every day.
  • Choose protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and other seafood, eggs, soy products, nut products, and seed products.
  • Pick whole grains over refined grains.
  • Include milk, yogurt, and cheese.
  • Avoid foods with added sugar.
  • Stay away from higher-sodium foods.

Toddler formula could make the transition to solids harder

Beyond offering no unique nutritional benefits, toddler formula might also make it harder to fully transition your little one to solids.

In your child's second year (after their first birthday), they should reach the milestone of eating mostly solids --- or all solids. By age 2, they should largely be eating the same meals as the rest of the family eats (everything except for certain hard, unsafe textures).

But offering toddler formula fills your child up, so they won't be as primed to eat more healthy solid foods.

They might grow attached to the formula and choose it over the nutritious food they need. They also may start preferring sugary beverages and foods since they're used to the sweet taste of toddler formula.

And it's easier for toddlers to become full, as they don't need as many daily calories as infants (they aren't growing as rapidly).

It's much better to focus on transitioning to a diet of solids, so your little one will be a healthy, adventurous eater for years to come.

Toddler formula labels can be misleading

As a 2018 report published on the National Institutes of Health's PubMed states, “Public health experts [have raised] concerns about misleading labeling practices” for toddler formula.

Toddler formula labels look very similar to infant formula labels – which can confuse many parents. Don’t be fooled: they’re very different from infant formulas.

All infant formulas must contain very specific amounts of nutrients for babies’ needs, meet other rigid requirements, and follow specific labeling rules, set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

But toddler formulas don’t have to meet any requirements, so they could contain any assortment of nutrients and other ingredients the manufacturers want.

Often, they’re over-sweetened with added sugars, and contain much more fat and sodium than your little one needs.

"The U.S. has a regulatory structure for food labels and distinct policies for infant formula, but no laws specific to toddler drinks… Compared to the same manufacturer's infant formula labels, most toddler drink labels utilized similar colors, branding, logos, and graphics. Toddler drink labels may confuse consumers about their nutrition and health benefits and the appropriateness of these products for young children." -- 2018 report on toddler formulas, published in PubMed

Worse, toddler formulas are often labeled as supplements for picky eaters. This can be even more misleading, as many toddlers can be picky. But if your toddler is meeting development milestones, has healthy growth, and is eating nutritious solids, there's no need for toddler formula. They're already getting what they need from a healthy diet.

And toddler formula is expensive -- especially for something that doesn't offer many true benefits.

Offering your toddler standard milk and water is better

We've already covered the best things for your little one to eat instead of toddler formula. But what should you offer your child to drink when they reach the 12-month mark?

The answer is simple: whole milk and water.

Whole milk contains more protein than toddler formula, and isn't filled with added sugar like toddler formula is.

And water helps build the healthy habit of choosing the healthy, sugar- and calorie-free drink over unhealthy sugary choices.

(Don't offer cow's milk as a drink until after baby's first birthday, and don't offer water until after 6 months of age. Breastmilk or infant formula should be baby's primary drink until the age of one.)

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises, "If you and your child have decided it is time to wean and your child is 12 months or older:

Give your child plain whole cow’s milk... He or she does not need… toddler milks, drinks, or formula."

For more on offering your child cow's milk and giving your child water, don't miss our previous articles.

Are there situations where toddler formula could be beneficial?

Even though toddler formula isn't generally beneficial, there are a few situations where it may help.

But you should still never give toddler formula unless your pediatrician recommends it.

Some reasons why a pediatrician may recommend toddler formula include:

  • Inadequate growth
  • Malnourishment
  • Significantly low weight
  • A milk allergy (in which case they may recommend a specialty formula)
  • Several other food allergies
  • Another medical condition that affects the diet or affects growth and development

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All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  If your infant has severe eczema, check with your infant’s healthcare provider before feeding foods containing ground peanuts.