Toddler Drinks — What Does the Research Say About These Products?

They aren’t unhealthy, but they’re probably a waste of money
Toddler drinking with a meal.

If you’ve wandered the baby aisle in your local grocery store recently, you may have noticed they stock beverages labeled specifically for toddlers. They aren’t the same as formula, and they aren’t traditional nutritional supplements.

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And — because shopping for your children isn’t complicated enough — the language we use to define these toddler drinks is … well … a little on the slippery side.

We spoke to pediatric dietitian Jennifer Hyland, RD, CSP, LD, to get clarity about what these beverages are, what they aren’t and whether or not they’re worth pouring your savings into.

What are toddler drinks?

Toddler drinks — also referred to as toddler milks or toddler nutrition drinks — are powdered products that are usually sold by baby formula companies. Toddler milks are marketed specifically for children ages 12 to 36 months who are transitioning from breast (chest) or formula feeding to solid foods.

Like the baby formula they’re supposed to help children transition away from, toddler milks tend to be quite pricey.

So, if that’s what toddler drinks are, what aren’t they?

To start, toddler drinks are not the same as supplemental nutrition drinks for children. Those products usually come pre-mixed in a variety of flavors and are used as medical nutrition supplements for children with a specific medical need. Supplemental nutrition drinks aren’t specifically transitional beverages, and you should only be using them if your doctor or dietitian recommends it. These drinks are higher in calories than powdered toddler drinks and regular milk.

Now that we have a working definition of toddler nutrition drinks, it’s time to talk about the claims their manufacturers make. Are these “transitional drinks” actually necessary for your little one? Or are we reinventing the wheel when we could just give our kids good old-fashioned whole milk? 

Is there any evidence that toddler drinks help children transition from breast (chest) milk or infant formula to solid foods?

Hyland doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the science around toddler nutrition drinks. “There is no literature to support the claim that toddler milks are necessary or warranted for a developmentally neurotypical child,” she states.

In other words, if your child is eating a regular diet and consuming age-appropriate solid foods, there’s no reason they should need a toddler drink.

“After age 1, most children can meet all of their nutrient needs with a balanced mix of whole milk, fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and healthy fats,” Hyland says. “If you’re concerned that your child isn’t eating with enough variety, you can use a standard multivitamin to cover most of what the toddler drinks aim to accomplish.

“Parents are often surprised to learn that toddler drinks are actually the same calories as whole milk! So, if you feel like your child needs extra calories, there are other ways to do so and a toddler drink would not be the answer.”

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But what if your child isn’t developmentally neurotypical? What if your child was a preemie or has a chronic illness like Crohn’s disease?

“Discuss that with your physician or dietitian,” Hyland recommends. “Whether or not they need additional supplementation or toddler milks could be very specific to that individual child.”

Does drinking toddler drinks increase the risk of obesity in young children?

Toddler milks aren’t beneficial to the majority of children, but the only damage they’re likely to do is to your wallet.

Hyland notes that there are some occasions — like when a child has underweight — when a supplemental drink may be just what the doctor ordered. But remember: Toddler milks aren’t the same thing as supplemental drinks. And, importantly, toddler milks don’t stimulate healthy weight gain. In fact, they don’t provide any more calories than whole milk.

“Sometimes, parents think, ‘Oh, toddler milks will give them an extra boost,’” Hyland says. “It does, it gives them extra nutrients, vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids. But it doesn’t give them extra calories, so I would not say that a toddler drink is going to lead to or encourage obesity, necessarily.”

Hyland encourages you to speak to your pediatrician or registered dietitian. They can give recommendations for an appropriate oral supplement to promote growth.

Should you be worried about the ingredients in toddler drinks?

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “If toddler drinks don’t aid the transition to solid foods and don’t facilitate weight gain, what’s in that powder, exactly?”

It’s a good question.

Hyland doesn’t see toddler nutrition drinks as necessary for the majority of children, but she’s not poo-pooing their ingredients either. They do provide more nutrients than whole milk alone, and most don’t have added sugar.

“There are a lot of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids in toddler nutrition drinks,” she says. “So, there’s nothing in them that I’m concerned with.” However, Hyland’s quick to note that context matters.

“It could be risky to give fortified toddler drinks to a kid who’s eating a regular diet and taking a multivitamin. In that case, they could be overdosing on certain vitamins and minerals.”

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Supplement drinks are a different story

We talked earlier about the difference between toddler milks and supplemental nutrition drinks. As a reminder, supplemental nutrition drinks are typically premixed and flavored. Most of them are manufactured by companies that make nutritional drinks for adults, too.

Unless specifically recommended for your child by their doctor or a pediatric dietitian, Hyland advocates skipping them.

“The pre-mixed drinks are higher calorie than milk and they contain added sugar, which, while indicated for some, aren’t necessary for most kids. If your child does need a supplement drink, a dietitian will help you work out how to optimize them in your day so your child still learns to eat solid foods.”

Are toddler drinks worth the money?

Toddler drinks might not encourage obesity or contain any dangerous ingredients, but does that make them a good buy?

Frankly, it depends on why you’re buying them.

If you’re buying them with the expectation that they’ll have a significant impact on your child’s health, it isn’t worth the money.

If you would sleep a little easier knowing that your picky child is getting full nutrition, it may be worth the extra cost.

Ultimately, Hyland considers this less a question of health and more a question of personal preference.

“If a parent feels inclined to give their child toddler milks, I wouldn’t advise against it,” Hyland says. “They certainly will not harm the child, and the drinks are an easy option to guarantee toddlers are meeting all their nutrient needs.”

Do toddler drinks re-invent the wheel that is whole milk and food? Sort of, yeah. Does that wheel still turn? Yeah, it does. As long as your child is eating a varied diet, you can’t go wrong.

If only all parenting decisions were so simple. 

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