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Toddler milks are often not as healthy as they claim

Many toddler milks contain added salt and sugar and less protein than cow's milk, a new report finds.
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Many toddler milks contain added salt and sugar and less protein than cow's milk, a new report finds.

Toddler formulas, or toddler milks, are drinks and powdered mixes that are marketed for children from six months to three years of age. These products have been around for a while, but sales and advertising have jumped in recent years.

Now, a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics warns that these beverages are not necessary and could be detrimental to children's health.

Dr. George Fuchs, a pediatrician at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine is the lead author of the new report. He says toddler milks are often marketed as transitional or next-stage formulas for growing infants and toddlers, which he says is "misleading."

That's because, unlike infant formulas, toddler milks are not designed to meet all of a child's nutritional needs in the first year of life.

"Infant formula is regulated by the FDA," Fuchs points out. "They have to review and approve all infant formula sold in the U.S. That's not the case for toddler drinks. They are entirely unregulated," he says.

The marketing around toddler milks often touts added nutrients to boost brain development or support a healthy immune system. And that can lead parents to mistakenly believe that these products offer more nutrition than either breast milk or cow's milk.

In fact, the AAP report notes that many of these drinks contain added salt and sugar and they have less protein than cow's milk. And they cost significantly more.

"Toddler formulas are not only unnecessary," Fuchs says. They could be bad for children's health. "Drinks with added sugar can contribute to an increased preference for sweetened foods as the children get older," he says.

"We have been studying the marketing of toddler milks for many years," says Fran Fleming-Milici, at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut. "And the misperceptions it creates among parents are endless." She points out that toddler milks are placed right next to formula in the supermarket which adds to parents' confusion.

And while sweetened fruit-flavored drinks are the top source of added sugar for children, toddler milks are also a cause for concern. According to a recent study, 22% of caregivers reported giving toddler milk to infants aged 6 to 11 months, Fleming-Milici says, "but these products don't provide the nutrition that infants need."

Instead, pediatricians say babies should drink breast milk or infant formula until they're 12 months old. After that, cow's milk or breast milk is recommended, along with water, and a varied, balanced diet of solid foods.

This story was edited by Jane Greenhalgh

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.