Do toddlers need their own milk?

Toddler and growing-up milks are big business.

Questionable industry tactics?

If you're a parent who's had a lovingly prepared healthy meal thrown across the table by an uncooperative toddler, you'll know only too well the worry that your child isn't getting the nutrients he or she needs.

Enter the growing market of toddler, junior and "growing-up" milks that promise to fill the gaps in your child's diet.

What is toddler milk?

Walk into any supermarket or chemist, and you'll soon see a wall of powdered formula milk products. While many of these are infant formulas (designed for babies under the age of 12 months as a breast milk substitute), there are increasing numbers of similar-looking tins of powdered-milk drinks aimed at children aged two or older.

At a cost of $16–$22 a tin (which may only last a week or two), $229.3m of formula was sold in Australia in 2013. But why do these products exist when most healthy one-year-olds are capable of drinking cow's milk? Should you really choose one of these products over the far cheaper regular milk in the supermarket fridge?

Don't believe the marketing hype

Toddler and junior milks make plenty of claims about their nutritional benefits that are sure to appeal to guilty mums and dads worried about their child's nutrition:

  • Nestlé's NAN toddler milks claim to "support your toddler's immune system"
  • Aptamil toddler and junior milks promise to "meet the dietary and energy needs of toddlers and children whose nutritional intake may not be adequate for growth and development".
  • Advertisements for S26 toddler milk proclaim it's the "perfect mix of science and love".

"These are just weasel words," says Professor Sandra Jones of the University of Wollongong, who specialises in marketing and health. "They don't really mean anything, but they sound good."

Of course, promises to support your child's immune system will certainly sound good to any parent who's endured the never-ending cycle of colds and tummy bugs that toddlers and preschoolers often come down with. However, according to health experts a tin of toddler milk isn't the full solution.

"There is no such thing as 'immunocare'," says Sydney GP Dr James Best. "It simply doesn't exist." Best says he sees many anxious parents who buy toddler and junior milks when they would be better off concentrating on helping their little ones develop better eating habits. "These products claim to fill the gaps in your child's diet, but the gaps simply don't exist if they're eating well."

Does your toddler need toddler milk?

The National Health and Medical Research Council Infant Feeding Guidelines state:

  •  Toddler milks and special and/or supplementary foods for toddlers are not required for healthy children.
  •  From 12 months of age and beyond, toddlers should be consuming family foods consistent with the Australian Dietary Guidelines.
  •  Solid foods should provide an increasing proportion of the energy intake after 12 months of age.

Dr Kellie Bilinski, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, points out that children should be able to meet their nutritional requirements from eating a healthy diet without special toddler milks. She says nutrients promoted in toddler and junior formulas such as iron, omega-3 and prebiotics can be obtained from a diet including meat, fish, wholegrain breads and cereals, and fruits and vegetables. "The prebiotics support the immune system, and can be found in many fruits such as bananas and vegetables such as asparagus."

Bilinski also says there are plenty of downsides to relying on toddler milks. "If toddlers have too much formula it may not encourage them to eat adequate solid food." She points out that learning and becoming familiar with foods is an important developmental step too. "Formulas shouldn't replace a healthy diet in children/toddlers. It's a bit of marketing to parents who are concerned that their children's diet may be inadequate."

Got a fussy eater?

If you have concerns about your child's diet being inadequate, it's always best to seek the advice of a health professional such as a GP, community nurse or dietitian. Or head here for more tips on feeding a fussy toddler.

What are the types of formula and milks being sold?

  • Infant formula is designed for babies under six months who are not being breastfed.
  • Follow-on formula is marketed as a "second-step" product for infants aged 6-12 months that, like infant formula, is designed for older babies who aren't being breastfed.
  • Toddler milk is for children aged 12 months and older.
  • Junior milk is for children two years and older.

Infant formula advertising by stealth?

What's commonly referred to as "infant formula" is the formula suitable for newborns up to the age of 12 months. While breast milk is recognised as the best choice for young babies, infant formula is designed to replace breast milk for babies who can't be breastfed.

Guidelines for advertising baby formula

In Australia, the Marketing in Australia of Infant Formulas (MAIF) Agreement is a voluntary self-regulatory code of conduct between manufacturers and importers of infant formula. It arose in response to the World Health Organization's International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes 1981 (WHO Code), which includes a ban on the advertising and promotion of infant formulas.

Although formula manufacturers comply with these guidelines, when it comes to toddler, junior and growing-up milks for babies over 12 months there are no restrictions. And given packaging and branding of these products often look almost identical to infant formula and are heavily advertised and promoted, there are concerns that toddler and junior milks act as a proxy advertising for all types of formula.

To test this theory, the University of Wollongong conducted a study in 2010. The aim was to investigate how women expecting their first baby perceived print ads for "toddler milks" to determine whether they function as indirect advertising for infant and follow-on formula. Almost 67% of those surveyed reported seeing an advertisement for infant formula. Those who had only seen non-retail advertising were more than twice as likely to believe they'd seen such an advertisement as those who had only seen retail advertising. 

Professor Jones, who supervised the study, says the research proves that the majority of people don't differentiate. "I have no doubt that it is proxy advertising for infant formula. If you see the ads for toddler milk that say it's good for a toddler, it's easy to assume it must be good for a baby too. If people are familiar with a product – if you see something enough – you will decide that you like it." 

What do the manufacturers say? 

CHOICE contacted Nestlé  for a response to the study's findings. Nestlé spokesperson Margaret Stuart said that although the company is "committed complying with the WHO Code on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes and the MAIF agreement", toddler or junior milks are out of the scope of the agreement and advertising of those products is allowed.

"We're very careful when we advertise our toddler milks to ensure the advertising is directed to parents looking for growing-up milks for their toddlers, and to ensure it is distinct from infant formula fed to infants."

There have been suggestions that there should be further restrictions by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) around the kind of warnings on the tins of toddler formulas, any moves have so far been resisted by the manufacturers. Nestlé has argued that "we believe healthcare professionals are the most appropriate source of information with regards to the risks of not breastfeeding". 

FSANZ has said that while there is a review of infant formula products underway, follow-on and special infant formulas will be reviewed at a later date due to budget constraints.

However, there will be calls for public submissions on the topic later this year.

A tale of two advertising strategies

S26 junior milk (for children aged two) is advertised to consumers with the claim that it supports "your child's growth and development" with "the perfect mix of science and love". 

The ads targeting retailers that sell S26 (at right) take a different approach.