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Toddler Formula vs Milk – Which is best?


Toddler formula versus milk is a question on the minds of many moms as these alternatives are fairly new to the American market.  For years, European countries have offered supplemental toddler formulas for those with specific health needs. However, most toddlers are able to eat a variety of solid foods, and do not need to obtain their nutrition from a formula. 

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between milk and toddler formula to see which offers the best nutrition for your child. 

Should You Give Your Child Toddler Formula or Milk?

Milk is the preferred choice for the vast majority of healthy toddlers. When infant formula was first developed out of necessity, it was helpful for mothers who could not nurse (source).  Over time, infant formula has given women the freedom and comfort to feed their baby differently than how it has been done since the beginning of time. 

The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breastfeeding whenever possible (source).  With moms having a renewed interest in breastfeeding, infant formula manufacturers have switched gears to generate more business.   Yes, the breast is best for babies, and even toddlers, but the loss of revenue has prompted the development and marketing of toddler formula,.  So, here we are. 

Most experts agree that cow’s milk is a better option than toddler formula (source).  Toddler products tend to make parents question their child’s diet.  Trust us.  Even picky toddlers get sufficient nutrition from their seemingly limited diets.  Keep offering your little one new healthy options, and he or she will get a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

What is Toddler Formula?

Toddler formula is a powdered drink, similar in composition to infant formula. 

While marketed as a “transition milk,” it is not as necessary as you may think.  Your child has other, better sources of  nutrition.  After the first birthday, the correct transition is to introduce whole milk, and to discontinue purchasing formula. Water, solid foods, and milk are all your toddler needs.

Moreover, toddler formula is far more expensive than cow’s milk, even the organic versions. Why spend money on a product that you really don’t need? While formula is necessary for infants who are not breastfeeding, there are more nutritious options for toddlers. 

Some companies market these products as dietary supplements for toddlers who fail to get enough nutrition from food alone. This tactic may be acceptable as long as they do not claim that all toddlers need a transitional formula. 

Ingredients in Toddler Formula

Let’s look at a popular product to see what it offers:  Enfamil.   Its manufacturer produces some of the best infant formulas on the market, but their toddler formula is quite different.

Enfagrow PREMIUM Toddler Transitions Baby Formula Milk Powder, 20 Ounce (Pack of 4), Omega 3 DHA, Iron

Its packaging is modeled to appear like an infant formula, encouraging parents to purchase it as the appropriat  next step.  Now, let’s look at the ingredients:

Enfagrow PREMIUM Toddler Transitions Baby Formula Milk Powder, 20 Ounce (Pack of 4), Omega 3 DHA, Iron

First, we see non-fat milk which comes from cows.  Toddlers actually need fat for healthy brain development (source). However, this fat should come from healthy sources such as full-fat milk, not the oils found in toddler formulas.  In particular, the inclusion of palm olein oil is less than ideal because it reduces calcium absorption and bone mineralization (source).  Unfortunately, this type of oil is a common ingredient in many baby formulas as well. 

Second, Enfamil toddler formula uses corn syrup solids as its main source of carbohydrates.  It’s not the first ingredient, as seen in some other formulas, but still not ideal.  This added sugar promotes childhood obesity, tooth decay, and a preference for “sweet tastes” (source).

Third, some toddler formula ingredients are just as easy to obtain from solid foods.   For example, yogurt is a good source of probiotics and calcium.  Fish and nuts contain brain-healthy ARA and DHA.

In addition, toddler formulas offer a long list of vitamins and minerals. The main difference between toddler and infant versions, however, is in the amounts of calcium and phosphorus.  Toddler formulas are designed to mimic the levels of what is found in milk. 

Are all of these ingredients (except corn syrup) safe and healthy for your toddler? Absolutely!  They are just not the best composition.   Most of your toddler’s nutrition should come from solid food instead of beverages. 

One benefit of reading a toddler formula label, however, is to discover that omega fatty acids are important to include in your toddler’s diet. 

Concerns About Toddler Milk

The biggest concern with toddler milk is the added sugar.  Moreover, these beverages can make your toddler feel “full,” and less hungry eat at mealtime. 

Most toddlers consume more than enough sugar in their daily diets.  The World Health Organization recommends that two-year-olds get less than 25 grams (or six teaspoons) of sugar per day (source).  No added sugar is preferable under the age of two.

When a toddler does eat sugar, lactose from either breastmilk or cow’s milk, is a better option.  It is healthier, and easier to digest (source).  In contrast, one bottle of Enfamil Premium Toddler Transitions Formula contains 10.8 grams of sugar.  This alone would fulfill your child’s recommended daily sugar allowance. 

Once you add the natural sugars in milk, fruit, and even cereal, you will find that your toddler consumes far more sugar than expected, especially if you offertoddler snacks or a cookie

Furthermore, toddler formula ingredients are not regulated, so it is unclear if the additional vitamins and nutrients are appropriate. Ultimately, toddler formula drinks aren’t dangerous for your toddler, but they may not offer the best nutrition. 

Regulations on Toddler Formula

Infant formulas have been developed according to internationally established guidelines to ensure consistency and safety (source).  In the United States, additional criteria must be met.  Many toddler drinks, however, do not comply with international infant formula standards.  Because toddler formulas are not universally recommended, there are no established  regulations.  The Early Nutrition Academy is the first to offer some guidelines (source).  The FDA, however, provides no information on toddler formulas due to their lack of interest in these products. 

The manufacturers of these formulas have no restrictions on which ingredients they choose, and can include any amount they wish without oversight. This can lead to misleading labeling practices.  The labelling often confuses parents with savvy claims of nutritional benefit. 

Health authorities recommend that you give your toddler cow’s milk along with a wide variety of nutritious foods (source).  Extended breastfeeding has become more than acceptable as well (source). 

Research on Toddler Formula 

Beyond just a lack of regulation of toddler formula, there is limited  research on its pros and cons.  Two studies, one in Thailand and another in New Zealand, have attempted to address these questions (source).   Toddler formulas are a rather recent invention, and further research is necessary to determine whether or not they are a good option for toddlers.  For now, health authorities believe is that toddler milk offers little advantage over a healthy diet and cow’s milk. 

Cow’s milk is experts recommended for the majority of toddlers.  For those with a cow’s milk protein allergy or who follow a plant-based diet, soy milk is the recommended alternative (source).  

Milk Nutrition

First, cow’s milk was never intended to satisfy all of your toddler’s nutritional needs. Children of all ages still need a balanced diet in order to stay healthy, and to acquire all of the necessary nutrients. 

Cow’s milk is fortified with vitamins and minerals.  One cup provides 28 percent of the recommended daily value of calcium, and 24 percent of vitamin D (source).  Moreover, it has riboflavin, phosphorus, vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, vitamin A, magnesium, folate, and potassium, in addition to healthy fat, protein, and calories. 

Children and toddlers must consume foods for fiber and other vitamins.  Although cow’s milk is a significant source of calcium, it is also found in other food sources (source).  This is important for bone, heart, and dental health.. 

One issue, however, is that it’s designed for cows and not humans. This means you should limit the amount your toddler drinks to prevent constipation and iron deficiency anemia (source).

In addition, a baby cow weighs about 60 to 100 pounds at birth, and can grow over 1,000 pounds as an adult.  This is a much more than an adult human weighs, so it makes sense that a toddler would need less milk.  In addition, the vast majority of your toddler’s fluid intake should be water.  If you offer 100 percent juice, it is best to dilute it with water to reduce the sugar. 

As previously stated, whole cow’s milk is recommended between the ages of one to two to provide a healthy source of fat for brain development.  Low fat or skim milk may be given to older toddlers.   Talk to your doctor if your child has special nutritional needs or history of milk protein allergy.

Other Milk Options for Toddlers Who Cannot Drink Milk

Toddlers who are unable to drink cow’s milk need another option.  Goat’s, soy, almond, rice, coconut, oat, hemp, and pea protein milks are currently available.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends soy milk for toddlers with a cow’s milk protein allergy or who consume a plant-based diet (source). The reason for this is that soy milk has a higher protein and fat content than other plant-based alternatives.

Current research has shown some benefit of goat’s milk.  The fat content is similar to that of breast milk, and it contains levels of phosphorous and calcium that are equivalent to cow’s milk.  It also may be easier for toddlers to digest.  However, those who are allergic to the whey or casein in cow’s milk may not tolerate goat’s milk.

It is important to note that goat’s milk is lower in B vitamins and folate than cow’s milk (source).  Its taste may also not be acceptable for many toddlers. 

A few companies now offer plant-based toddler drinks for children who cannot drink milk. Check out Else, a completely vegan option for toddlers. 

Keep in mind that most experts advise against using any drinks for toddlers except water, cow’s milk, or breastmilk.  They also discourage  almond, rice, or oat milk.   The majority of these options do not offer enough protein, fat, or the right nutrients for toddlers (source).

Instead, they recommend fortified soy milk for toddlers who cannot drink milk.  Always choose unsweetened options when possible. 

Breastfeeding

If you are breastfeeding and wish to continue past your baby’s first birthday, it’s perfectly acceptable to do so.  There is no set timeframe as long as a toddler continues to eat solid foods and drink adequate amounts of water.  Additionally, breastmilk does not become nutritionally insignificant at any age; it’s more about when mothers and toddlers wish to stop breastfeeding (source). 

Furthermore, breastmilk contains hormones, antibodies, and immunity boosters.  It may also reduce the risk of certain infections and adult-onset illnesses.  Moreover, breastmilk will always provide more benefits than any toddler or infant formula. 

The brain-boosting DHA and other fatty acids that manufacturers add to toddler formulas are already in breastmilk! If you wish to continue breastfeeding, there is absolutely no need to even look at a toddler formula.  It is also likely that your toddler will disapprove of how it tastes, and prefer breastmilk.

Breastmilk can provide an unbelievable amount of vitamins, even to a two-year-old.  They get a massive amount of protein and calcium, plus smaller amounts of vitamin C, B12, A, folate (source).  This vitamin content may vary, however, depending on what supplements a mother takes.

Unfortunately, some people can be very critical of mothers who choose to nurse their toddler.  They assume all mothers would want to stop by the first birthday. Don’t worry about the opinions of others.  It’s not their child or breasts.  Worry only about you and yours as breastfeeding is very healthy, and has been done for thousands of years. 

Finally, extended breastfeeding is considered important for fostering good nutrition habits.  The World Health Organization (WHO) states that breastfeeding promotes growth, cognitive development, and motor skills.  Do keep in mind, however, that your child may be ready to wean off of the breast before you are, and be ready to transition to cow’s milk at 12 months old.

What Toddlers Need 

When it comes to providing nutrition for your toddler, it is important to offer a wide range of foods to get enough nutrients. Keep in mind that toddlers are notoriously picky, and will often refuse to eat anything but chicken nuggets or mac and cheese.  If so, be sure to offer versions that are minimally processed, and as healthy as possible.  This means either preparing them from scratch, or checking ingredient labels on packaged versions.  Such favorites can be made healthier by adding cooked cauliflower to the mac and cheese, or by mixing vegetables with ground chicken before adding the breading for “nuggets.”

Also, little tots need fewer calories than adults, usually between 1,000 to 1,400 calories a day.  With these calories, be sure your child gets calcium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and D.  Toddlers also need healthy fats and protein, both of which are easy enough to get.  The diets of toddlers are often deficient in fiber, so encouraging them to eats fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is important.  These types of foods help to stabilize blood sugar levels, reduce constipation, and promote healthy intestinal flora (source).

It is best to offer vegetables and fruits multiple times a day.  Try putting only fruits or vegetables on the plate first.  Once they are eaten, offer the prefered foods next.  When a single option is all that is available to hungry toddlers, they will, more often than not, take at least one bite.

The trick with toddlers is to continue offering a variety of foods, and see what they like.  Some toddlers prefer beef over chicken. Broccoli is disgusting to some toddlers, but “the best” to others. 

Do not automatically offer your toddler’s favorite foods.   Instead, exposing them to a variety of options helps to provide the best possible nutrition. Don’t forget to try foods that you yourself dislike: your toddler may actually enjoy them. 

Most importantly, do not panic. As we have said, toddlers are often the pickiest eaters.  Introduction of a variety of healthy foods during infancy helps to reduce “pickiness” later on.  In most cases, these eating behaviors will eventually improve (source).  Modeling healthy eating habits can help.  Toddlers are more likely to eat certain foods when their daycare peers and parents also eat them.   If you want to worry about something, then focus on reducing sugar.

The Problem With Sugar 

The main problem with toddler formula is the use of sugar which can result in exceeding the daily dietary recommendations for this age group. Why is sugar the enemy for toddlers?  For the same reasons as for everyone else – sugar is linked to illnesses. 

A few sweets here or there are not a problem.  Even some healthy foods have sugar.  Fructose, galactose, glucose, and lactose are all sugars that naturally occur in foods.  The types to worry about are sucrose (table sugar), and fake sugars like corn syrup and maltodextrin.  

A diet high in sugar can make kids  “too full” to eat a healthy meal.  Also, sugar can cause obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and much more. 

Toddlers love sweets, and they have no self-control or understanding of proper nutrition.  It’s your job to monitor their food intake.  Eating too much sugar can lead to a preference for sweeter foods, and causing toddlers to avoid proteins, vegetables, and whole grains (source). 

Sugar is hidden in many foods, and labels have tons of complex words most people do not understand.  Learn to check labels to identify sources of sugar ready to infiltrate your child’s diet. 

Also, toddler teeth are still coming in, and are very new. Focus on foods that will help their teeth, and not cause cavities or dental disease.  Cheese is a great snack option because it is low in sugar and increases saliva within the mouth (source).

Finally, excessive amounts of sugar may interfere with a toddler’s mood, potentially leading to depression, anxiety, and sleep problems later in life (source).  The problems with sugar is endless.  This is why it’s so important to avoid sugary foods, giving your child the best start in life.

Misleading Claims

When reviewing formula company’s websites, you will read claims such as “toddler drinks help to balance toddlers’ diets” or that they “complement their diet.”  The manufacturers profess to support your child’s nutrition. 

The bottom line, however, is that toddler formula is a way to generate more income for formula companies.  They use advertisements and lower prices to prey on and convince parents that their toddler needs such supplements.  Unfortunately, there is little evidence to support these claims. 

Also, with the high sugar content of most of these products, toddler milk can contribute to obesity.  Most toddlers who have tasted other foods and drinks are happy to give up formula, and make the switch to tastier options.  Therefore, sugars are added to entice toddlers to drink formula. 

Which sounds better to you? Milk straight from the source, or a powdered beverage that doesn’t last long in the refrigerator? 

Companies should not even call these products “formula” (and many do not), and simply call them a supplemental powder mix instead.  Also, they use labelling that is similar to infant formulas to encourage parents to use what is familiar.

Your job as a parent is to provide the best nutrition for your child.  For the majority of toddlers, these formulas are not the best options.  In addition, the WIC program does not consider toddler formula as a necessary nutrition.  Instead, they offer infant formula until age 12 months, and cow’s milk thereafter, except in cases of allergy.

Final Thoughts 

Your best bet is to avoid toddler formulas completely, and to follow the recommendations of health authorities:  switching whole milk.  With more mothers choosing to breastfeed, many infant formula companies are seeing a decline in sales, and have found a new market. While some toddler drinks may be beneficial for those with specific health or dietary concerns, many contain too much sugar to be considered a good option for the average toddler. 

Overall, toddler milk is ploy to make parents spend more money on an unregulated product. While it is well marketed, these products do not have the support of the FDA or American Academy of Pediatrics.  Stick to giving formula to your infant and milk to your toddler. 

If you do decide try a toddler formula, we highly recommend  Baby’s Only Whey Protein Toddler Formula, as it offers the best nutrition without unnecessary added sugars.  For toddlers with a cow’s milk protein allergy and families who follow a plant based diet, Else is a great low sugar option.

Baby's Only Whey Protein Toddler Formula - Non GMO, USDA Organic, Clean Label Project Verified, 12.7 Oz, Pack of 6

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Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Alexander began her pediatric career at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000, and has practiced at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. After graduating from Kalamazoo College and Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, she completed her pediatric training at Overlook and Morristown Memorial Hospitals. She is board certified in General Pediatrics. In addition to pediatrics, Dr. Alexander pursued her interest the culinary arts with study at the French Culinary
Institute. In 2007, she opened Global Palate, LLC, catering small group events for six years. Dr. Alexander has also been a professional writer and editor since 2018, engaging in a variety of medical editing and writing projects.



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