Follow-on formula & growing up milks: What’s the deal?

Reading time: 6 min

As loving parents, we all want to provide the best the world has to offer for our children in every aspect of their life and early childhood nutrition is no exception.

I remember being a new mom and holding a six-week-old baby and walking into a local baby supermarket for the first time in search of infant formula when I could no longer breastfeed due to medical reasons. I also remember standing in the formula aisle and feeling completely overwhelmed by the myriad of brands and kinds of infant formula available.

Just when I thought I had narrowed it down to a few options, I found a whole new type of formula: follow-on formula. What was that and how did it compare to regular infant formula? And why did a baby have to change from infant formula to follow-on formula?

The tin labels explained that the follow-on formula supports the transition from infant formula to solids. I began to wonder if she would need this follow-on formula in addition to a solid diet. To add to the confusion, I saw the growing up milk (for children 12 months+) that promised to fill the gaps in my child’s diet. I am a nutritionist and this confused me, so I could only imagine how a mother without the scientific understanding of good nutrition would feel – just another thing for new moms to feel guilty about.

To name a few, Nan promises to “contribute to a balanced immune and digestive system” and “support(ing) long-term health benefits, brain development and vision”. Enfamil says it has “lots of nutrients – including antioxidants to help support your child’s immune system”, while Novalac “contains calcium and vitamin D necessary for regular growth” and “provides iron that contributes to regular cognitive development”.

Of course, products that can support your child’s immune system and promote development sounds good to every parent, especially one who has endured the endless cycle of colds and tummy bugs that babies and toddlers bring home from daycare or school.

growing-up-formula-in-bottle
Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

But let’s break down the proposed benefits of each a bit further …

Follow–on milks are suitable for babies from the age of six months. Although they may be useful for babies with low iron levels or a poor weaning diet at that age, the majority of infants won’t benefit from the additional iron that these formulas provide if an adequate weaning diet is provided.

Follow-on formula should never be used for babies under six months. Not only do they contain more iron and other minerals than young babies need, but they also contain additional sucrose, glucose and other non-milk sugars.

Moreover, there is no need to switch from first milk to follow–on milk when a baby reaches six months of age, as there is no published evidence that any follow–on formula offers any nutritional or health advantage over the use of whey–based infant formula.

Growing up milks claim to fill the gaps in your child’s diet – but the gaps simply shouldn’t exist if they’re eating a balanced diet. Parents would be better off concentrating on helping their little ones to develop healthier eating habits. A child’s nutritional requirements should be satisfied from eating a varied diet without special additional “milks” past the age of 12 months.

Nutrients promoted in formulas suited for children beyond the age of one such as iron, vitamin D, omega-3 and prebiotics can be obtained from a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, meat and fish. Additionally, growing-up milks are high in sugar and can compromise your child’s oral health in the long term.

“The practice being introduced in some countries of providing infants with specially formulated milks (so-called ‘follow-up milks’) is not necessary.” WHO Assembly, 1986

There are numerous downsides to relying on toddler milks such as discouraging adequate solid food consumption. Learning about tastes and texture of various foods is an important developmental step. If you are at all concerned that your child’s diet is inadequate, it’s always best to seek the advice of a nutritional expert or a health professional. Rather than seeking artificial substitutes, an expert can educate you on how to create a well-balanced, nutritious diet for your child.

What does the latest research say?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) offers the latest research showing that most infants in high-income countries exceed their required daily protein intake and warn that a higher protein intake in early childhood has been associated with a higher risk of obesity in later life.

For this reason, and also because the current minimum protein level permitted in follow-on formula (1.8g/100 kcal) remains higher than that found in breast milk, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has recently completed a public consultation to consider lowering this minimum level to 1.6 g/100 kcal and have also lowered the maximum permitted protein level from 3.0 to 2.5 g/100 kcal.

The organisation further maintains that as well as being unnecessary, follow-up formula is unsuitable when used as a breast-milk replacement after six months. Current formulations lead to higher protein intake and lower intake of essential fatty acids, iron, zinc and B-vitamins than those recommended by WHO for adequate growth and development of infants and young children.

WHO recommends, where possible, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and the subsequent introduction of a nutritious and balanced weaning diet, while breastfeeding continues. Follow-up formula is therefore unnecessary for breastfed children.

For those unable to breastfeed, it may be best to continue with newborn formula (not follow-up formula) up to 12 months to ensure that your baby gets the best levels of nutrition when paired with a balanced weaning diet.

Follow-up formula or Growing up milk is unnecessary past the age of 12 months, as a child should be past the weaning stage and be able to meet the nutritional requirement through daily food intake.

Disclaimer: This post is based on personal experience and personal brand preference of the content author and has in no way been paid for or sponsored. BabyYumYum reserves the right to its opinions and fully supports the notion of promotion that breast is best in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) infant feeding guidelines. Breast milk is the best food for infants. Good maternal nutrition is essential to prepare and maintain breastfeeding. If breastfeeding is not applied, an infant formula may be used according to the advice of healthcare professionals. Preparation and storage of any infant formula should be performed as directed on the tin in order not to pose any health hazards.

Also read:

How much sugar in formula is too much?
Unpacking the nutrients required in your baby’s diet