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Toddler Formulas vs. Milk

Toddler Formulas vs. Milk

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

Congratulations on the kids and the life milestones and all of that good stuff! Can you or your commenters answer a question for me? My vegan friend gives her toddler soy-based formula meant for 12-24 month olds, and she does so because it has extra nutrients beyond soy milk and they have a vegan diet and she wants to be extra sure he’s being well fed. So, I get that.

But why does the dairy-based kind exist? (Except to confuse my husband back when my daughter was 6 months old and he bought a huge tub of the toddler kind, which is why I know it exists and why I know my now 19 month old daughter LOVES it.) Is it better than straight up whole milk?


Whole Milk is Best for Toddlers

I asked my pediatrician about toddler formula at Ezra’s 12-month visit — he’d weaned from breastfeeding two months prior and we were working on weaning from the bottle as well, but I was curious about the milk vs. toddler formula thing too. Ezra was (and is) a 10th percentile peanut in weight, despite being a pretty fantastic eater, accepting a wide variety of foods with gusto. Was it possible he was still missing out on something? Should I give him a big-kid formula, just to be safe?

Hellllzzzzz no, my pediatrician told me, in so many words. She waved the toddler formula off as a simple marketing ploy to get parents to continue to spend money on a damn pricey product. Whole milk* was absolutely the way to go (curbed to about 16-18 ounces a day), along with a variety of healthy solid foods. There was nothing wrong with Ezra’s low-percentile weight: He was just a skinny, healthy, active kid who was self-regulating his diet exactly the way he was supposed to.

A quick bit of Internet research reveals other pediatricians agree that “there is really no evidence to show that these are preferable to using cow’s milk when your child reaches 1 year of age.” There’s some extra calcium and phosphorus in them, which — if there’s a concern — can easily be obtained through a multivitamin or supplement. And that linked article points out that depending on toddler formula to let your child “drink his nutrients” can end up reinforcing bad eating habits, since it can passively give parents permission to indulge eating whims and exclude real milk and less popular healthy foods. “Eh, he hates vegetables so I’m not gonna push. Here’s some boxed mac-n-cheese and apple juice for the 10th day in a row. The formula will make up for it, I’m sure.”

And as you’ve seen with your daughter, toddler formulas are sweet and delicious and an easy sell to kids (and worried parents) — kinda like those chocolate-flavored nutrition shakes for grown-ups, or something. There’s nothing HARMFUL about them, other than the possibility of your child developing a strong preference for the sweetened formula over boring regular old milk, but for an otherwise-healthy toddler, they’re just not necessary.

The Case for Toddler Formula

That said, I am sure there ARE times when a toddler formula IS preferable. I can see the reasons for your vegan friend’s concern. Though again, if she wants to raise a vegan child she also needs to raise a vegan EATER, because at some point the formula is gonna have to go and a well-balanced diet needs to take over, and the window for establishing that diet is NOW. (And I know I’ve met my share of “vegetarian” children who eat exactly zero fruits and vegetables, but basically live on pasta and peanut butter and multivitamins). (Says the meat-eating mother of one of the world’s pickiest eaters, so pot, kettle, cast no stones, etc.) But it’s possible her pediatrician recommended the formula just to be safe, so sure.

And that’s the thing: Chances are, if your child would genuinely benefit from toddler formula vs. milk — like if there’s a feeding problem, like an oral motor delay, swallowing issue or prolonged illness — your doctor will let you know. Otherwise, feel free to skip the pricey powders and head to the (well, also kinda pricey) organic milk instead.

*The American Academy of Pediatrics has tweaked its recommendation, by the way: Instead of whole milk until two years old, they now say weaned babies and toddlers with certain risk factors (family histories of obesity, high cholesterol or heart disease) should get reduced fat (2%) milk from 12 months on. At two years old, all children should switch to 1% milk. Ew. I know. We had to change pediatricians for insurance reasons this year and the new doctor practically had a STROKE when she heard my boys still drank whole milk. I didn’t know! Good Lord, it’s hard to keep up. 

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Olivia

    September 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    “Eh, he hates vegetables so I’m not gonna push. Here’s some boxed mac-n-cheese and apple juice for the 10th day in a row. The formula will make up for it, I’m sure.” Heh, I kind of do that with breastmilk for my 2.5 yr old. We do offer her everything we eat, but when she (often) only wants yogurt or a peanut-butter sandwich I figure (hope) the breastmilk makes up the gap. I wouldn’t buy toddler formula, though, too expensive and really just seems like a marketing ploy like the formula for pregnant women.

  • Lisa

    September 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    My younger son rejected BOTH infant formula AND whole milk, but would tolerate Next Step (or whatever) (it was 13 years ago!) so we gave him that out of a sippy for about two months, then slowly started mixing it with whole milk until it was 90% milk, 10% formula. Then we switched him to 100% whole milk, which he AGAIN soundly rejected.

    So he took a multi-vitamin for about three years until he could reliably eat all the food groups.

  • Erin

    September 9, 2011 at 5:11 pm

    My son loved regular formula (but only from a bottle), hated toddler formula (in any form, we got a sample pack in the mail that I tried once) and now barely tolerates the occasional cup of milk, so I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

  • Marianne

    September 9, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I do buy an occasional can of toddler formula for my 2 year old, but for instances of camping and traveling. Places that aren’t easy to keep milk. Yes, I was a parent that would lean to the “he can get it from his milk”, but he also had tonsils and adenoids that covered his throat and until this week, a liquid diet was about all that he got down. Just an idea though for campers and travelers! =)

  • Jennifer

    September 9, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Keep Giving the kids whole milk.  There brains need the fat still!

  • Meg @ Ameringlish

    September 10, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    Thank you so much for doing this post!  They run ads for “follow-on formula” all the time here in the UK.  I’ve always wondered what the heck the point of it is and you’ve confirmed my suspicions.  I like nothing better than being told I’m right 🙂

  • Kate

    September 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Don’t mean to hijack, but this is a related question — I’ve just had a baby last month and I keep getting sample packs of “newborn” formula in the mail (I think it’s only Enfamil). This is relevant because I am having to supplement with some formula. Do babies 0-3 months old really need a different formula or, again, is it a marketing ploy? Curious if anyone has thoughts on this. thanks!

  • hodgepodge

    September 12, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    I looked after a child once who at three years old still routinely got 2 cups (500 mL) of follow-up formula every day. In terms of solid food he was incredibly picky; he ate a carbo-rama washed down with formula and turned his nose up at both fruits & vegetables.

    His parents were both very slim but he and his older brother were very heavy for their ages. May have been unrelated by remain skeptical since they were accustomed to getting so many calories in liquid form.

    My totally non-scientific opinion is that follow up formula is bunk.

    @Kate: Newborns and very young babies do have different nutritional needs than older kids. Again, totally non-scientific opinion here and compare the labels to be sure, but I’m pretty sure the newborn formulas are different.

  • Linda

    September 12, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    @Kate: The main (only?) difference between Enfamil Newborn vs. Infant is the additional Vitamin D. If you have both packages you can see that the Newborn version has a ton more Vitamin D. I found that the Newborn version was a little bit harder on my baby’s tummy, but not by much, and that the powder was a little harder to dissolve than the Infant version. Enfamil’s packaging for Infant does say it’s for 0-12 months, so my personal (not professional) opinion is that the Newborn formula falls into the gimmick category.

  • Emily

    September 12, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Great timing on this question. As I wanted to go to Target today to get more formula for my 11.5 month kiddo who technically has more than enough in the pantry for the next month. It is very very very very very scary to switch from liquid to solids. I’m sorry, it is. My kiddo is a stellar eater. Hands down great – the only thing she’s rejected so far has been cottage cheese. And lately she’s not so into her waffles. but I fully intended to do formula until it wasn’t so scary. Maybe now I won’t. I’ll definitely do whole milk though, as that’s what we drink. I’ve heard that the pediatrician might tell me to do 2% due to her size (I didn’t know they were switching overall), but I don’t think I’ll agree because she is large (tall) due to genetics and I don’t think the type of milk she drinks is going to change that. I just felt like 15oz of formula a day would be better than 15oz of milk. but, pricewise, I’m glad to hear it’s not. Still so scary, I had an almost panic attack at the grocery store the other day realizing that my kid was now going to be 100% depending on me to be a good, healthy cook. Labor never scared me. but this stuff scares me to death.

  • Ladotyk

    September 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    I wanted to throw in that my pediatrician also said that toddler formula is a marketing ploy and to use whole milk instead, however I do like the idea suggested above of using it for camping and travelling!

  • Kate

    September 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm

    My pediatrician was fine with me giving our off the chart for height but only in the 40 th percentile for weight son whole milk from one to two but did recommend that we switch to 2% at his two year appointment. 

  • bhn

    September 18, 2011 at 5:18 pm

    Just to go even more radical crunchy-mom on you, kids don’t ever “need” milk. If your toddler has a varied and complete diet, water provides the hydration s/he needs, and the rest of the diet provides the nutrition. Milk is not a necessity, and toddler formula certainly is not.

  • Samantha

    November 8, 2014 at 1:43 am

    I agree with Emily- it is really scary!! I figured I’d use the toddler formula as a just-in-case type of thing..

    The WIC lady just told me to switch my son over to whole milk.. but he’s at the top of the healthy weight bracket, so I wonder if we should go with 2%? It’s confusing, it always seems to change.. To bhn or anyone else who can answer: I always remember in my Anatomy and Physiology class that my professor said milk wasn’t good for people… especially cow’s milk.. I know she was talking about adults, but I’ve always been curious if she was right or not… seems like when I’ve tried to look it up in the past, I couldn’t find the info. Anyways, she said the whole “got milk?” campaign was just, you know, propaganda so dairy farmers make their money… anyone know what she meant? I can’t remember her reasoning behind it all, but I do remember it made sense to me at the time… the science behind it seemed right.

  • Susie

    November 10, 2014 at 1:46 am

    There is actually sufficient evidence that milk isn’t as “necessary” or “healthy” as we once thought.  @bhn, you are absolutely correct!  There are pros and cons to both sides, however, milk consumption can lead to heart disease, intolerance, obesity, etc.  I am not a mom who preaches to other parents, however, since the topic was milk vs. formula, I wanted offer another perspective.  You can absolutely do your own research and make the best decision for you and your family.  We personally choose to offer water for hydration, vitamins to supplement as needed, and healthy beans and vegetables, best we can.  We look for foods high in potassium, calcium, and vitamin D (the supposed benefits from milk).  There is no proof that the fat from cow’s milk supports brain development, except in baby cow’s.  Our bodies are not equipped to break down the elements of cow’s milk completely, etc.  It is really up to each individual, and it is obviously much cheaper to serve children milk than continue with formula.  It is truly a case by case decision.  Good luck, parents!

  • Sakina

    January 19, 2015 at 11:17 am

    After reading all the comments I see cow’s milk as the winner. ..but my 15month old is allergic to cow’s milk so which is better? Formula or soya milk?

  • krystal

    March 11, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Sakina, my son has a milk protein allergy. His pediatrician does not like soymilk due to the possible effects of estrogen on the developing brain, so we use almond or coconut milk.

  • Brittany

    July 2, 2015 at 7:18 am

    My daughter is lactose intolerant. I occasionally supplement with a toddler formula because while almond milk and coconut milk are my go to, and she’s a fantastic eater, sometimes it’s just a little easier (long trips to visit family, outings, etc) to give her the toddler formula. I don’t think you should discount it or or the people who decide to go that route, especially with mounting evidence that milk isn’t necessary or even beneficial to the human body. We’re the only mammals that go on to drink milk at an advanced age. Especially milk that isn’t even our own. If there are parents who choose to give toddler formula as their go to then why make them feel bad, though? Rude.