Do infant formulas live up to nutritional claims?

Once babies are one year old, they no longer need formula. At that age, they can and should get most of their nutritional needs from solid foods. Cow’s milk or fortified plant milks like soy milk are 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 formulas didn’t make the cut. Here are some key takeaways for parents.

Is formula more nutritious than milk?

No. But for some parents, it feels strange and uncomfortable to stop formula and give cow’s milk. They feel that formula is more nutritious and perhaps even easier to digest. That may not be surprising: A lot of marketing money has encouraged people to think that way.

So it’s understandable that some parents turn to formula marketed to toddlers. This is especially understandable given the claims made by infant formula manufacturers about the nutritional benefits of formula. You may have seen—or bought—these products marketed as simply “follow-on,” “transitional,” or “growing-up” milk. These milks have no medical purpose. They simply help companies retain customers they would otherwise lose once babies turn one year old.

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

Do infant formulas live up to nutritional claims?

Do some toddlers need special milk?

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

Are formulas subject to any regulations?

No. Because formulas must meet all the nutritional requirements of babies under 12 months, they are regulated by the FDA. The FDA sets requirements for what products contain and what they don’t, and ensures that infant formula manufacturing facilities are regularly inspected.

That’s not the case with infant formula. It’s not regulated and doesn’t have to prove any of its nutritional claims.

What could make infant formula unhealthy?

Given the lack of regulation, it’s not surprising that infant formula varies widely in composition. But what’s particularly concerning, according to the AAP, is that some of these products are actually unhealthy. They may contain too little or too much protein or added sweeteners. These added sweeteners can develop a taste for sweets in children and put them on the road to obesity.

Additionally, infant formula is more expensive than cow’s milk, which is a financial burden for families – one that’s definitely not worth it.

Do infant formulas live up to nutritional claims?

Is your toddler eating a healthy diet?

Instead of reaching for infant formula, try looking at your child’s diet more broadly. Toddlers should be eating the same healthy food groups that we all need. These include

Fruits and vegetables

Whole grains

Protein (such as meat, fish, beans, and nut butters)

Dairy products or milk substitutes fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

Limit added sugars, and after age 2, also try to limit less healthy fats in the child’s diet. The best way to build healthy lifestyle habits is to start early, and that’s especially true when it comes to diet.