By Jenna Helwig
February 14, 2014

Surely you've heard the phrase "breast is best." While formula is a good option for some moms, breastfeeding offers a host of benefits to baby including an immune system boost and reduced risk of asthma, diabetes, and obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends babies nurse for the first 12 months of life, and for years doctors, the federal government, and advocacy groups have been urging new mothers to breastfeed whenever possible. Happily, the message seems to be sinking in. In the United States 77 percent of newborn babies are now breastfed.

However, what has been baby's gain has been formula makers' loss, since of course when babies drink more breast milk they drink less formula. But, now formula companies have seen an opening in the milk market.

Doctors and pediatric nutritionists advise that 12 month-olds can safely switch to full-fat cow's milk.  But you may have seen other products on the store shelves: special powdered "milks" marketed to parents of toddlers. The colorful packaging touts their supposed health benefits, such as such as immune system support, growth promotion, and increased brain and eye health. And, indeed, these powders are frequently fortified with a host of vitamins and minerals.

But, is toddler milk really necessary for good health? According to New York-based pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko, the answer is simple: no. "Toddler milks are a way to add some nutrition to toddlers' diets that is perfectly possible to obtain from foods for the vast majority of children."

Besides, she adds, since science still doesn't completely understand how synthetic vitamins and minerals are absorbed by the body, real food is still the best way to obtain them. "Plus, the amount of added nutrients toddlers milks contain is very often quite small. For example, one brand touting its benefits for brain development contains about 10mg of DHA per 8-ounce serving, about one-fifth of the DHA in approximately one bite of wild salmon."

While these drinks can be a boon to parents whose children are malnourished or failing to thrive, what about run-of-the-mill picky eaters? Many parents of toddlers are concerned that their children aren't getting adequate vitamins and minerals and hope that by providing these beverages they're making up for any nutritional gaps. Stasenko suggests that, actually, toddler milks are likely to make kids more choosey. "Since these drinks are very palatable, thanks to added sugar and flavoring, it is likely that they will replace other nutritious foods and possibly even exacerbate picky eating habits."

Toddler milks are especially popular in Asia and the United Kingdom. The UK newspaper The Guardian reports that almost half of mothers with young children used a toddler milk, "despite health professionals regularly advising parents that a healthy diet including cows' milk provides a young child's required nutrition."

Compared to cow's milk toddler milks are also significantly more expensive, weighing in at around 17 cents an ounce, as opposed to 3 cents an ounce for conventional milk and 7 cents an ounce for organic milk. That may not sound like a huge difference, but if your child is drinking 12 oz. of milk a day, that is a difference of about $50 a month for conventional milk and $35 a month for organic.

Of course as parents we want the best for our children, and when products suggest that they'll make our children healthier, stronger, or smarter it's tempting to snap them up. But, as Stasenko notes, "At age one, a child is ready to join the family at table and does not need any special foods."

What do you think? What kind of milk does/did your toddler drink?

What kind of behaviors can you expect from your growing toddler? Take our quiz to find out!


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