What is toddler milk and does my child need it?

By Hilary Stempel, MD, MPH

What is toddler milk and does my child need it?

Milk for toddlers or cow's milk?

When my twins turned one, I was ready for all the milestones - including giving cow's milk in a cup. I was so excited to be done with making and cleaning bottles. I set my boys in their highchairs, placed sippy cups filled with whole milk on their trays, and waited for the magic. 

Instead, I got stares and looks of disbelief as they shook and then threw their new cups. It turns out introducing milk isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Sometimes kids don’t take to milk so readily. Then there’s the issue of what exactly to give them and when. If you’ve walked the baby aisle in your grocery store, you’ve likely seen containers of toddler formula, or toddler milk, next to infant formula. But, do toddlers need powdered toddler milk? Does toddler milk provide health benefits greater than cow's milk or soy milk? The answer is: likely not. 

Pediatricians recommend all babies less than a year drink either breast milk or infant formula. By one year, solid foods become the main source of nutrition for your baby. This means that the amount and type of milk they need changes. 

For breastfed babies, it’s great for breastfeeding to continue after one year as long as this is working well for both the caregiver and the baby. Sometimes, it’s necessary to supplement breastmilk with another milk, and that’s ok. 

For formula-fed babies, at one year of age they can switch to drinking milk. Pediatricians recommend one-year-old babies drink either whole fat cow’s milk or unsweetened soy milk. 

What is toddler milk?

You may notice another option on the grocery store shelf: toddler milk. Toddler milk is usually marketed for use with kids 1-3 years old when they’re ready to transition off infant formula. Toddler milk products go by a variety of names, such as “toddler milk”, “transition formula”, “growing up milk”, “milk drink”, or “toddler drink”.  The claims on the package make it easy to think that toddler milk is the ideal milk for your toddler. However, toddler milk is not recommended for 3 important reasons:

1)  It has added sugar. 

Toddler’s milk contains added sugar. This powdered milk is sweetened with cane sugar or corn syrup. The sweeter taste of toddler milk can lead kids to prefer sweeter foods when they get older. Also, compared to cow’s milk, toddler milk has less fat, less protein, and more sodium.

2) Its nutritional value is less than cow’s milk.

Toddler milk packaging claims to contain nutrients and ingredients that: (1) boost brain development, (2) support a healthy immune system, and (3) balance out a toddler’s unpredictable diet. However, studies have not shown that toddler milk is better than cow’s milk. The nutritional value of toddler milk is often not as complete as cow’s milk.

3) It’s more expensive!

Toddler milk costs more to buy than regular whole cow’s milk or soy milk. 

Bottom Line:

Every parent wants to set their toddler on a path towards healthy development. 

After your baby turns 1, you can safely give them milk.  Toddler milks are not recommended by pediatricians because they are sweeter, do not always have the best mix of fats and proteins, and are more costly. Instead, use whole fat cow's milk or unsweetened soy milk. If you’re breastfeeding, continuing is encouraged. Think about milk being an addition to your toddler’s diet and focus on helping them eat a balanced mix of healthy fats, proteins, and foods with iron, Vit D, and calcium.

Pro Tip for Introducing Whole Milk:

Try introducing only one ounce of whole milk at a time. You’ll see how your baby likes the new milk. If they love it, you can quickly transition off of formula to all whole milk. Or, you can increase the amount of whole milk by an ounce a day for your baby’s taste buds and body to get familiar with their new milk option. 


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