Toddler Formula vs. Cow's Milk: Experts Debunk What's Best

What is toddler milk, and is the powdered drink beneficial for your little one? Here, experts weigh in on your child's diet after breastfeeding or formula-feeding.

Figuring out what to feed your baby and when can be a bit overwhelming—and confusing. After all, nutrition in your baby's earliest years is crucially important for overall health. And if you have a growing baby who's teetering on the toddler stage, you've likely wondered whether to transition them to cow's milk or if you should pick up toddler formula instead.

Many of the big name companies — Earth's Best, Enfamil, Gerber, Nutramigen, and others — have started making this powered drink in recent years. "Toddler milk is formula marketed to be appropriate for kids one year and older as they transition from infant formula," explains Rachel Dawkins, M.D., medical director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinic at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, FL. However, cow's milk is the better choice.

Even though toddler formula sounds good on paper, many experts don't recommend it. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), toddler formula is "unnecessary and potentially harmful to young children." Why? It's costly and full of unhealthy sweeteners, and it's unnecessary if your little one follows a normal diet.

For the majority of toddlers, cow's milk is the drink recommended by the AAP. Read on to learn more about why you should avoid toddler milk in most cases.

Mom Feeding Toddler with Bottle
Shannon Greer

What is toddler formula, and how does it differ from infant formula?

In short, toddler formula (aka toddler transition formula or toddler milk) is marketed for children ages nine months to three years old. It's fairly similar to infant formula and is mostly made of powdered milk, sweeteners, and vegetable oil. However, research shows that there are some important differences compared with infant formula.

For one, infant formula composition, labeling, and requirements are supervised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says George J. Fuchs, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist who serves on the AAP's Committee on Nutrition. Those same requirements don't apply to toddler formula, meaning their compositions aren't regulated to the same degree.

Toddler formulas tend to include more sodium, fat, and sugar than infant formula, says Dr. Fuchs—meaning it's not okay to feed these to an infant—and they are not ideal for toddlers, either.

Toddler milk is also more expensive than infant formula, notes the doctor.

Should you ever use toddler formula?

Many infant formula manufacturers also make toddler milk with similar labels. Parents might believe these products are a beneficial next step for their child, says Dr. Fuchs. However, "In general, there is no advantage to a toddler formula," he says, as long as your toddler is consuming an age-appropriate regular diet with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead, cow's milk is the ideal source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, fat, and other nutrients your toddler needs.

"Parents are led to believe that these are good supplements for picky eaters but in reality, almost all toddlers are picky eaters," says Dr. Dawkins. "If they are growing well along their growth curves and developing as they should be, then they are getting plenty of nutrients."

Furthermore, there's no evidence that toddler formula is better than whole milk for growth or development, notes the AAP. And toddler formula tends to delay the inevitable, which is that the majority of calories need to eventually come from food, says Samira Armin, M.D., a pediatrician with Texas Children's Pediatrics Humble Fall Creek. You risk getting your toddler attached to formula, and they might even shun whole milk in the future.

That said, toddler formula might be a good addition to your child's diet in certain specific circumstances, says Dr. Armin, such as if your child has a medical condition that inhibits their diet, severe milk or food allergy, or irregular growth. But, notes Dr. Armin, don't pick up a toddler formula unless your pediatrician suggests it. If it is recommended for your toddler, your doctor can also help you figure out the best toddler formula for your child's specific needs (for example, a hypoallergenic option).

What should you use instead of toddler milk?

Despite all of the toddler milk on the market, the AAP and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend feeding your baby breast milk or infant formula until at least 12 months of age, and then, switching to cow's milk at the 12-month mark (but not before). Cow's milk is not healthy for babies before they turn 1.

Tips for transitioning to cow's milk

At 12 months old, start by subbing one feeding per day to a cup of milk and building from there. Around this time, toddlers should aim for between 16 to 24 ounces—two to three cups—of cow's milk a day, says Dr. Dawkins.

However, the CDC advises to be careful not to give your toddler too much milk. "Cow's milk is not well digested by the developing gut of a baby in large quantities," agrees Dr. Dawkins.

Also, if your baby's drinking too much milk, they may not be hungry for food. "Infants should be more dependent on food at this time; milk takes the back burner," says Dr. Armin.

Most toddlers are advised to drink whole milk because they need the extra fat content for optimal growth. However, if your child is overweight or obese, your pediatrician might suggest skim or 2% milk.

Children with milk protein allergy might need to transition to soy milk or another cow's milk alternative. However, this decision should always be made in conjunction with your pediatrician.

Beyond milk, it's also important to keep offering a wide variety of healthy food options to toddlers, says Dr. Dawkins. "One day a food will be their favorite and the next day they might hate it and vice versa. This is totally normal though completely frustrating."

Also: "Toddlers don't eat as much as infants," says Dr. Armin. "Their growth isn't as accelerated so portion sizes go down but as long as your baby is growing, that's fine." Serving cow's milk along with their meals and snacks will promote a well-balanced diet for your toddler.

The Bottom Line

Slick marketing campaigns may make toddler formula look like an ideal choice for your child. However, the truth is that these products should be avoided in most cases. Instead, at 12 months, transition your child from breast milk or infant formula to cow's milk rather than to toddler formula. For the majority of toddlers, whole cow's milk is the healthiest drink (and an ideal calcium source).

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