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.

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, you've likely wondered whether to pick up toddler formula.

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.

But even though toddler formula sounds good on paper, many experts don't recommend it. It's costly and full of unhealthy sweeteners, and according to a February 2020 article from The Atlantic, it's unnecessary if your little one follows a normal diet.

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—though there are some important differences worth pointing out.

For one, infant formula composition, labeling, and requirements are supervised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to George J. Fuchs, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Committee on nutrition. 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.

Toddler milk also more expensive than infant formula, he notes.

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, Dr. Fuchs notes. 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.

"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 all 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 she might even shun whole milk in the future.

That said, toddler formula might be a good addition to your child's diet in certain occasions, says Dr. Armin — specifically if your child has a medical condition that inhibits her diet, a severe milk or food allergy, or irregular growth. But, she notes, you shouldn't pick up a toddler formula unless your pediatrician recommends it. 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 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends feeding your baby 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 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, Dr. Dawkins says.

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

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

Of course, if your child's overweight or obese, your pediatrician might suggest skim or 2 percent milk. 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.

Beyond milk, you also want 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."

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