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Skip the Toddler Formula: Why Cow’s Milk Is the Better Option

As your toddler graduates from breast milk or infant formula, it can be daunting to know what to feed them to ensure they get all the nutrients they need to grow into a healthy child— especially if they are picky eaters.

Grocery store shelves are stocked with toddler formulas promising things like “brain development” and “whole nutrition.” However, this language can be misleading to parents, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced that toddler formula offers no nutritional advantage and parents should introduce cow’s milk instead.

What Is Toddler Formula?

Toddler formula is a powdered drink made primarily of powdered milk, vegetable oil, and sweeteners. It is marketed toward children who are no longer drinking breast milk or infant formula—typically around ages one to three years old.

If you have been giving your child toddler formula, don’t feel guilty. It’s not harmful for your child, but cow’s milk is a cheaper option that, when paired with age-appropriate food, meets all their nutritional needs.

“Toddler formula is expensive, and you’re not really getting any additional benefit that makes it worth the cost,” says Rachel Tanz, MD, a pediatrician at University of Utah Health. “After age one, most nutritional needs will be met by food and then supplementing that with cow’s milk or an alternative like soy or almond milk.”

While infant formula and toddler formula may seem similar, infant formula is required by the Infant Formula Act to meet nutritional requirements for children younger than 12 months. This means the ingredients in infant formula are reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

However, these requirements do not apply to formulas marketed toward older children, meaning the ingredients do not have to adhere to the same standards the FDA has for infant formula. Additionally, the marketing of toddler formula can mislead parents into thinking it’s a necessary next step after weaning from breast milk or infant formula.

“Infant formula has to meet very specific criteria in terms of nutrition and ingredients and quality control,” Tanz says. “Toddler formula has none of those regulations, so they can kind of market anything as toddler formula.”

Why Choose Cow’s Milk?

The AAP and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both recommend feeding your baby breast milk or infant formula until their first birthday. After that, you can start offering cow’s milk with their meals.

Pasteurized, whole cow’s milk is packed with vitamins and minerals to help your little one grow into a healthy, strong kid, including:

  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Protein
  • Vitamin B12
  • Riboflavin
  • Phosphorus
  • Healthy fat

Once your baby has turned one, start gradually introducing cow’s milk by substituting one breast milk or infant formula feeding per day with cow’s milk. Over time, you can replace more feedings with cow’s milk until it has replaced breast milk or infant formula all together. This is also a good time to allow your baby to adjust to drinking from a cup instead of a bottle.

If your child is picky about ditching the formula, Tanz says you can introduce it gradually by offering bottles that have infant formula and cow’s milk mixed together.

Be sure you’re not giving too much cow’s milk though. Drinking too much milk can cause constipation or can make a child too full to eat other foods during mealtimes. Tanz recommends a maximum of 16 to 20 ounces of milk per day.

Are There Alternatives to Cow’s Milk?

If your child has a dairy allergy or intolerance, there are milk alternatives made from plants you can choose, such as soy, oat, rice, coconut, and various nut milks.

Like cow’s milk, alternatives should not be introduced until your child has turned one.

Other important information to know about milk alternatives:

  • Choose one that is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, since those are two of the main benefits in cow’s milk.
  • Read labels carefully to ensure you are buying a kind that is unflavored and unsweetened. Flavored milk alternatives can contain added sugar.
  • Talk with your pediatrician about which milk alternative is best for your child. Take into consideration other allergies they may have, and which would be the best for their specific nutritional needs.

Rest assured knowing that your little one is eating a balanced diet with cow’s milk or a milk alternative, without spending a ton of money on toddler formula.