09 Nov, 2020 Last updated: 09 Mar, 2021

New research from VicHealth and Deakin University has revealed that many toddler milk products are high in sugar, contain fewer key nutrients and are more expensive than regular milk. So why are they so widely marketed as essential? And what should toddlers be having instead?

Author: VicHealth works with health promotion experts to create a Victoria where everyone can enjoy better health and wellbeing. 

Any coronavirus information mentioned is accurate at the time this article was first published (9 November 2020). For the most up-to-date information about coronavirus restrictions, please visit the source: www.coronavirus.vic.gov.au



There's no denying it, being a parent of young children is no easy feat. Particularly today when there is more information and opinions out there than ever before about what is considered best for a young child’s diet.

Not to be mistaken with infant formula products, toddler milks are often marketed as good alternatives for regular milk, but are they really? VicHealth and Deakin University have done the research showing they’re completely unnecessary, more expensive than regular milk and many contain harmful amounts of sugar.


Why are toddler milks marketed as essential?

Unfortunately, advertisements for toddler milk products are not regulated in Australia.

“Manufacturers are using Instagram influencers, targeted digital advertising and on-pack claims to try and lure families into believing these ridiculously priced products are ‘essential’ for their child’s health,” VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio explained.

"At a time when many families are finding it hard to afford healthy food, the last thing they need is to be guilted into thinking they should fork out excessive amounts of money on these unnecessary products."

The rise of ‘mum influencers’ has also been of particular concern, with well-known social media influencers pushing toddler milk products to their followers (many of whom are parents), without clearly disclosing they have been paid by the manufacturer to promote the product.

“Toddler milk and food companies are increasingly using Instagram influencers to promote their products to their very large followings of loyal women and mums,” Parents Voice manager Alice Pryor said.

“Mum influencers have become extremely clever at making casual recommendations for toddler foods and milks in their own ‘voice’ via their Instagram accounts, to make their posts look less like an advertisement.

“Families are likely unaware the influencer is being paid or compensated for their so-called opinion, which is very concerning.”



Feeding recommendations for infants and how they differ to toddlers

It is recommended that infants should be exclusively breastfed up until 6 months. At 6 months, infants can begin to be introduced to a variety of wholefoods and can continue to be breastfed until 12 months of age and beyond, for as long as the mother and child desire.

However sometimes, due to a range of factors, breastfeeding is not possible. Where breastfeeding is not possible, it’s recommended that infants are fed infant formula until 12 months of age.


So what’s the difference between infant formula and toddler formula?

Infant formula is an important replacement or supplement when breastfeeding isn’t possible for infants up until 12 months.

Toddler milk formula has been created by infant formula manufacturers to extend their market reach. There are no rules around how these products are marketed and no basis to the health claims they make. They’re even sneakily positioned right next to infant formula on supermarket shelves, so it looks like it’s a natural progression between infant and toddler formula.


So what can toddlers eat as part of their diet?

The simple answer that the best milk a healthy toddler over 12 months can have is regular cow's milk. It’s also more cost effective, as our research showed that if drank daily, toddler milk products cost a family up to $23.56 per month more than regular milk.

Deakin University PhD student Jennifer McCann said from 12 months of age, toddlers can begin eating a range of wholefoods including fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s much more cost effective and often healthier to buy regular whole foods and portion them into toddler-sized servings at home,” Ms McCann said.

“When a child reaches 12 months, they can eat and drink regular whole foods, yoghurt, fresh fruit or vegetables. Regular, healthy family foods are better for a toddler’s health while also being much more affordable for families.”


Cutting through the spin of toddler milks, and what toddlers should eat

  • Regular milk often contains more key nutrients and less sugar than toddler milk products.

  • Many social media influencers are paid to promote these products. It’s important to remember that often when an influencer mentions or shows a product on their platforms, chances are it’s an ad.

  • From the age of 12 months, toddlers should:

    • Be drinking regular milk and water, not toddler formula

    • Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables

    • Not be having sugary drinks or confectionary

  • Avoid foods and snacks which are branded as toddler specific. These are often highly processed and contain high amounts of added sugar.

  • Expose your toddler to lots of different tastes and textures, particularly savoury foods because babies are born with an innate taste for sweetness due to initially feeding on breastmilk. If your toddler is a fussy eater, the Better Health Channel has helpful tips here.

  • Healthy toddlers over 12 months can eat what everyone else in the family eats (albeit they need foods chopped up into small pieces and vegetables cooked until they’re soft). There’s no substitute for fresh, healthy food!


Remember, while we currently see a lot of advertising for toddler milk products on TV and social media claiming that they can be beneficial, they’re expensive, sugar-laden and most importantly, unnecessary for your child.


Note: Tips in this blog are general and may not be suitable for the specific needs of your toddler. If you are unsure about dietary requirements for your child, please consult your GP, dietician or paediatrician.