Toddler milk drinks versus cow’s milk

Figuring out what to feed a toddler every day can sometimes be overwhelming and hard to read. Add in some picky eating phases that toddlers are notorious for, and you may start to wonder whether they are meeting all their nutritional requirements.

Once toddlers reach 12 months, you’re advised to introduce cow’s milk in small quantities (unless there is an allergy or intolerance) from a cup. But, you’ve probably also seen the tins at the supermarket or encountered ads for toddler milk, and wondered if you should pick one up.

Here, we compare toddler milk drinks and cow’s milk, but first let’s look at whether a child needs milk after 12 months, the signs of nutritional deficiencies, and the suggested daily serve of dairy for toddlers.

Why is milk and dairy important in the diet after 12 months of age?

Milk, cheese and yoghurt have various health benefits including supporting strong bones and teeth and are a good source of many nutrients, including calcium, protein, iodine, vitamin A, vitamin D, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and zinc. They should be offered in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Toddlers who fill up on milk (more than 500ml in 24 hours) may become low in iron and fibre as they are filling up on milk and missing out on key vitamins and minerals found in food.

Signs and symptoms of a poor diet

See your Healthcare Professional if your child is:

  • Underweight, overweight, or obese
  • Constipated or there are any changes in bowel habits
  • Being pale or lethargic
  • Showing signs of tooth decay
  • Not growing or developing appropriately
  • Experiencing extended picky eating or solids refusal
  • Sleeping excessively or waking frequently overnight

What is the suggested daily serving of dairy for toddlers?

A toddler’s appetite varies from day to day, which is normal.

For a 1-2 year-old, a suggested daily amount of dairy is 1-1½ serves (choose full-fat dairy). For a 2-3 year-old, a suggested daily amount of dairy is 1½ serves (you can choose mostly reduced fat dairy).

1 serve of dairy is:

  • 1 cup of cow’s milk or dairy alternative with at least 100mg of added calcium per 100ml
  • OR, 2 slices of cheese
  • OR, ¾ cup of yoghurt
  • OR, ½ cup of ricotta cheese

Toddler formula versus cow’s milk

As you can see, toddlers don’t need a lot of dairy per day to meet their nutritional requirements, but some toddlers are very picky eaters and/or go through normal stages of fussiness. If a toddler is refusing most dairy foods, or only eats a limited variety of foods in general, parents could consider offering a toddler milk drink or cow’s milk.

Let’s look at both to see which could be a good option from a nutrition perspective, so parents can make an informed decision on whether to offer one or the other (or both):

Toddler Milk drink is a specially formulated powdered milk for children above one years old that can be consumed as part of a healthy and varied diet. Parents sometimes consider supplementing their toddler’s diet with it when their dietary intake is inadequate as it provides additional nutrients for this time of rapid growth and development.

One serving of toddler formula can contain 22-50% of the recommended daily intake of 16 essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamins A, C, D, E, folate, zinc, iron, iodine, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and B vitamins.

Cow’s milk is an excellent source of calcium and 10 other nutrients including riboflavin, phosphorus, vitamins A and B12, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iodine.

Both toddler formula and cow’s milk contain many beneficial properties, but if you think that your toddler needs some extra nutritional support during times when they’re unwell or extra fussy, you could opt for a toddler milk drink since it contains several more nutrients than cow’s milk. However, if you’re concerned, speak with your healthcare professional first.

Considerations when choosing a toddler formula

  • The cost per serve
  • If they contain added sugar
  • They must not replace meals or whole foods and be consumed as part of a healthy balanced diet from one year of age.
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