By Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD
Lauren specializes in plant-based living and vegan and vegetarian diets for all ages. She specializes in writing about parenting and a wide variety of health, environmental, and nutrition topics.
Whether you’re looking to supplement breastfeeding or you’re trying to support your child’s nutritional needs while they transition to solids, sorting through all the formulas on the market can be confusing.
And when faced with all of those products on the infant formula aisle, you may find yourself wondering if the difference between toddler formula and infant formula is like the difference between men’s razors and women’s razors—purely a marketing ploy.
In this case, the answer is straightforward: Toddler and infant formulas are not the same.
In this short guide, we’ll explain the difference between toddler formula vs infant formula so that you can make the best choice for your growing baby.
Your Baby’s Changing Nutritional Needs
What should you feed your baby?
What seems to be a simple question has a complicated answer.
The right answer depends on your family’s specific needs and your child’s developmental stage. First, we’ll review the typical stages between a newborn and a toddler’s transition to a solid food diet.
- From birth to six months, babies should not receive any solid food. Instead, their diets should be composed of breast milk or infant formula. If you’re opting for formula, choose a high-quality product with a similar nutritional profile to breast milk.
- Eventually, your baby will be ready for some solid food, but that might not be at exactly six months.. According to the CDC, signs that your baby is ready for solid food include:
- Baby can sit up on their own and has good control over their head movement
- They open their mouth when food is offered
- After eight months, most babies are ready to begin trying some solid foods. Many parents choose to introduce just one food at a time, waiting 3-5 days to see if their baby has an allergic reaction before introducing the next food.
- During this slow process, most children will continue to need formula or breast milk to supplement their meals. Follow your child’s lead and be patient, especially if food allergies reveal themselves.
- At 12 months, children can often switch from breastmilk or infant formula to a toddler formula, milk, or milk alternative while continuing to eat new solid foods.
Mothers who continue to breastfeed beyond 12 months will naturally supplement their child’s solid diet. Breast milk gradually changes over time to meet a growing infant’s nutritional needs, and may look very different in composition at six months versus twelve months.
However, many people find it unsustainable to breastfeed and pump for even a year, much less beyond. Many families need to supplement breast milk with formula or switch to formula entirely due to busy schedules, difficulty feeding, inadequate milk, and a variety of other reasons.
Breast Milk vs. Formula
It’s important to understand the composition of breast milk so that you can make an educated choice about which formula will serve as the best supplement or replacement as you stop nursing.
Breast milk is comprised of the following:
- 87-90% water to keep your baby hydrated
- Easily digestible whey and casein milk proteins
- Fatty acids to help your baby develop weight and tissue, including healthy brain tissue
- Vitamins and minerals to support your baby’s growing body
- Compounds that help promote immune system development and defense
The specific nutrients found in breast milk include:
- Vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K
Some of these compounds are unique to breast milk. For example, immune-supportive compounds are passed from parent to baby during feeds, and that’s hard to replicate with formula.
However, modern formulas can deliver all the essential nutrients your baby needs.
The key is choosing a well-balanced formula with adequate fat, carbohydrates, and protein.
Remember that store-bought milk is not an appropriate supplement—not cow’s milk, goat’s milk, or nut milk. Formulas are more calorically dense and packed with nutrients.
However, the right formula changes along with your baby’s nutritional needs.
Toddler Formula vs Infant Formula
President of the Infant Nutrition Council of America, Mardi Mountford, tells NPR that “Milk-based toddler drinks can contribute significantly to nutritional intake of older infants and young children.”
Ideally, toddler formula is specifically formulated to meet the needs of children over twelve months old who are transitioning to a solid food diet. It should have more of the following nutrients than infant formula:
The right formula can be ideal for supplementing the nutritional needs of picky eaters, children with food allergies, and toddlers who are slower to begin eating solid foods.
But there’s a catch.
Remember when we said that not all formulas are created equal? While there’s strict regulation of infant formula, toddler formula is a different question altogether. Let’s take a deeper dive into each type of formula and the regulations surrounding them.
Baby Formula Regulation and Ingredients
The Food and Drug Administration closely regulates infant formula to control nutrient quality, content, and more.
- Infant formula manufacturers must report ingredients and other relevant information 90 days before bringing a product to market
- All infant formulas must contain a minimum amount of 29 essential nutrients, and some of these formulas also have a maximum amount per 100 calorie serving
- Manufacturers must also have a quality control system in place to ensure consistency between batches
- Unapproved formulations may be barred from the market, and manufacturers are subject to FDA fines
Nonetheless, there are a wide variety of ways for manufacturers to meet these minimum standards. Formulas don’t have to contain any specific ingredients, which means families have a choice between the following kinds of formulas:
- Dairy-based formulas with casein and whey similar to breast milk
- Soy-based formulas, which may be a match for babies with lactose intolerance or dairy-free families
- Plant-based formulas, which are suitable for lactose-intolerant and soy-intolerant tots.
Despite the fairly strict regulations, infant formulas may contain some ingredients that parents would prefer to avoid.
If you and your partner tend to eat an organic, vegetarian, or simply “clean” diet, you’re probably turned off by the idea of formula filled with additives like the following:
- Corn syrup and artificial sweeteners
- Palm oil
- Hormones and antibiotics (in dairy-based formulas)
- Artificial flavors and coloring
In addition, the regulations that govern infant formulas only apply to products marketed at children less than one year of age.
Toddler Formula Regulation and Ingredients
Toddler formula should be similar to infant formula in its composition, but with more phosphorus, calcium, and iron. However, this isn’t always the case.
Toddler formula is essentially unregulated.
While there are the same three essential options—dairy, soy, and plant-based products—toddlers’ formulas and milks are not guaranteed to have any specific nutritional profile.
Some studies have found that toddler formulas generally contain more of the following than their infant formula counterparts:
They may also be less nutritious than infant formulas.
So, how can you find a nutritious toddler formula? By practicing good consumer habits to find the product that’s right for your family.
Evaluating Toddler Formulas
Conventional wisdom often holds that a shorter nutritional label means a healthier product. However, you’re unlikely to find a list of just one or two ingredients when it comes to powdered formula.
Toddlers need the 29 nutrients that the FDA regulates in infant formula, as well as other ingredients to help aid digestion and promote overall health.
To choose the best toddler formula for your child, take the following steps:
Keep in mind that some potentially problematic ingredients and processing methods aren’t on the label.
For example, products may contain heavy metals and pesticides unless manufacturers specifically state their products are tested for these contaminants. Likewise, ingredients like DHA and ARA are technically safe, but they may be processed with harmful solvents.
For these reasons, it’s best to choose a brand with values that align with your family’s.
Else Nutrition: Something Else, Something Better
When browsing the formula aisle, do you ever wish that there was something else for your toddler? At Else Nutrition, our mission is delivering the highest-quality formulas on the market for children over one year of age.
Our plant-based formulations are dairy-free, soy-free, organic, and non-GMO. Just three core ingredients make up 98% of our formula:
The other 2% is composed of responsibly sourced ingredients that deliver the vitamins and minerals your growing child needs to thrive.
Give your child the best start possible. Choose something else—something better—with Else Nutrition.
FASEB. Toddler Formulas. https://faseb.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1096/fasebj.31.1_supplement.169.5
FDA. Regulations and Information on the Manufacutre and Distribution of Infant Formula. https://www.fda.gov/food/infant-formula-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/regulations-and-information-manufacture-and-distribution-infant-formula
CDC. When, What, and How to Introduce Solids Foods. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/foods-and-drinks/when-to-introduce-solid-foods.html
The content and advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical diagnosis, treatment, advice for specific medical conditions. Always consult a pediatrician to understand the individual needs of your child.
NPR. Toddler Milks. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/02/20/585875339/toddler-milks-filling-a-nutritional-need-or-a-marketing-niche