Toddler Formula vs. Milk: What's Best?

Expert advice when comes to transitioning your baby from infant formula.
Shannon Greer

There's a lot about being a new parent that can be confusing — not the least of which is what to feed your baby and when (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 (and you've walked down any pharmacy aisles lately) you've likely wondered whether or not you should pick up toddler formula. After all, all of the big companies — Earth's Best, Enfamil, Gerber, Nutramigen, and others — make it.

"Toddler formula 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.

So should you be switching your child to cow's milk or one of these supplementary drinks? Here, experts weigh in.

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

In short, toddler formula (aka toddler transition formula) 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, though there are some important differences worth pointing out.

For one, George J. Fuchs, M..D., a pediatric gastroenterologist who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Committee on nutrition notes that while infant formula composition, labeling, and requirements are supervised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), those same requirements don't apply to toddler formula, meaning their compositions can be all over the place. These formulas also tend to include more sodium, fat, and sugar than infant formula, he says, meaning it's not okay to feed these to an infant.

It's also more expensive than infant formula, he notes.

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When should you transition your baby off of breast milk or infant formula and what should you transition to?

Despite all of the toddler milk on the market, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding your baby with breast milk until at least 12 months of age and switching to cow's milk at the 12-month mark (you could start by subbing one feeding a day to a cup of milk and build from there). Around this time, toddlers should aim for between 16 to 24 ounces — two to three cups — of cow's milk a day, Dawkins says.

Most infants who use formula, she says, should transition to whole cow's milk at 12 months of age, no earlier.

You don't want to overdo it or give your child too much milk: "Cow's milk is not well digested by the developing gut of a baby in large quantities," says Dawkins. Also, if your baby's drinking too much milk, they may not be hungry for food.

And at this time, your baby shouldn't be that dependent on milk anymore anyway, says Samira Armin, M.D., a pediatrician with Texas Children's Pediatrics Humble Fall Creek. "They should be more dependent on food; milk takes the back burner."

Of course, if your child's overweight or obese, your pediatrician might suggest skim or 2 percent milk and children with milk protein allergy might transition to soy milk or another cow's milk alternative, though this decision should always be made in conjunction with your pediatrician.

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Should you ever transition to toddler formula?

"In general, there is no advantage to a toddler formula," says Fuchs, who notes that that's assuming your toddler is consuming an age-appropriate regular diet with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.

And many docs don't recommend toddler formula or toddler drinks.

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

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Yet many companies that have infant formulas also have toddler formulas with similar labels, conveying the idea that they're the next step for your child, Fuchs notes, adding that it's perhaps an effort to persuade the public that there's this age group that requires a special liquid portion of their diet. But as he says: "There's no evidence at all that it's needed. Studies show that the average American toddler gets what they need from age-appropriate foods and cow milk."

Furthermore, there's no evidence of toddler formula's advantage over whole milk in terms of growth or development, notes the AAP. And toddler formula tends to delay the inevitable, which is that all calories need to eventually come from food, says Armin. She finds toddler formulas can lead babies to become attached to formulas, too, and then they wind up not eating foods very well or don't like the taste of whole milk.

That said, there are some times when a toddler formula might be a good addition to your child's diet, says Armin — specifically if your child has a medical condition that precludes them from being able to take in a proper diet, a severe milk or food allergy, or if they're not growing properly. But, she notes, you shouldn't pick up a toddler formula unless your pediatrician recommends it for your child. Your doctor can also help you figure out the best toddler formula for your child's specific needs, for example, a hypoallergenic option.

Beyond milk, you also want to keep offering a wide variety of healthy food options to toddlers, says 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 Armin. "Their growth isn't as accelerated so portion sizes go down but as long as your baby is growing, that's fine."

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