Whole Milk vs. Baby Formula: Which is More Filling?

Whether whole milk or formula is filling or not really depends on your baby’s intake and needs. Whole milk and formula milk have different formulations. Whole milk is a drink designed to be a part of the baby’s diet alongside solid foods. Meanwhile, formula milk in itself is a complete meal with balanced nutrients that mimic those found in breast milk. It is intended for infants and is made filling without too many milk proteins to digest.

Thus saying, whole cow’s milk is a drink, while formula milk is considered a meal.

You cannot give whole milk to infants because its milk proteins are not easily digestible. But you can use it to complement formula and solid food once your baby reaches one year old. 

Difference between whole milk and formula milk

At the height of the formula milk shortage in the US, many parents were in a mad scramble for milk supplies.

It happened when Abbott Nutrition recalled and shut down one of its plants because of bacterial contamination. Feeding their babies back then became every parent’s nightmare. 

Months after the supplies were alleviated, some “spotty” shortages still occur in some localities. And if you have an infant and toddler to feed, the desperation to give a filling milk alternative is a must.

But is it right to give whole milk to infants as a last resort? Is it satiating and nutritive enough to give the optimum nutrient for babies?

Understanding the difference between whole milk and formula milk gives you the knowledge on what to choose and use to provide for your baby’s nutritional needs.

Formula milk

A mom is getting a scoop of baby formula powder to mix with water and feed her toddler

Infant formula contains components that are almost similar to breastmilk. The main difference between them is the natural antibodies that formula milk lacks. Infant formula milk is the primary food given to infants until one year of age. 

Formula milk has different stages suited to various infant ages.

  • Stage 1 or starter formulas are ideal for newborns until six months of age.
  • Stages 2 and 3 are follow-on formulas, where Stage 2 is ideally used starting at 6 months and Stage 3 at 10 months. 

Stage 1 milk contains the complete vitamins and minerals for the baby’s physiological and developmental needs. Some brands may be fortified with Vitamin D, something that breast milk lacks. It is made from whey protein, which is easy to digest and generally tolerated by babies.

Stage 2 formulas have the same composition as Stage 1 but with higher iron and vitamin D, and casein protein.

Stage 3 formula milk has higher nutrient and energy content fit for active babies with more developed digestive systems. It is a filling milk that is made with ingredients that support the baby’s mixed diet.

Whole Milk

Mom is bottle feeding whole milk to her toddler son

Whole cow’s milk or regular milk is an optional addition to a baby’s diet once they reach one year old. It contains milk solids with higher mineral and protein concentrations suited for the child’s digestion.

It also has less fat and carbohydrates as well as differences in the key vitamins and minerals. Whole milk also contains about 87% water.

The reason why whole milk is not ideal for infants is its sub-optimal nutrient but high mineral and protein content. In high concentrations, they can cause irritation of the stomach lining, and babies can lose blood through their stools.

It puts babies at risk of iron deficiency anemia, while cow’s protein can cause milk allergy.

Is whole milk more filling than formula milk?

For many of us, we measure how filling milk is on how often the baby takes his food. But that is not often a sound gauge since a baby’s appetite varies.

A toddler girl is lying down drinking whole milk from a baby bottle

There are times a baby takes too much out of his bottles, and times he is lax. If your baby is eating more solids, you should also expect a little low milk consumption.

From a logical point, formula milk contains higher fat and calories, which can mean it is more filling than whole milk. But then again, fat content is not the sole measure of how satiable the milk actually is.

Should whole milk replace formula?

Whole milk is way cheaper than formula milk. And that is understandable why many parents want to transition their babies to whole milk the soonest as possible.

Eventually, you should wean your child from formula, and a slow introduction to whole milk should start.

Considering the unstable supply of formula milk in some areas, whole milk may temporarily replace infant milk. But, it should only be for a short period if there is no other formula milk alternative.

After your baby turns one, you can start introducing whole milk along with a balanced diet. Remember not to rush things since the baby’s gut may not always be able to digest cow’s milk.

The recommended intake of whole milk is 16-24 oz a day.

Should babies continue with formula milk after one year old?

Feeding your baby formula after one year old is ideal but optional.

Continuing the formula though can improve vitamin D intake, which is necessary for the bones. That’s because formula milk is fortified with Vitamin D, a nutrient that is scarcely available in food.  

As your infant turns into a toddler, his nutrient intake should now come primarily from solid foods. Giving your baby excessive formula or whole milk fills him up quickly and leaves little room for solids.

Transitioning your baby to whole milk is also the right time to transition him to using a sippy cup as well. But if you are breastfeeding, there is absolutely no need to rush. Breast milk works best for babies two years old and beyond.

How about low-fat milk?

There was a time from 1960 to 1970 when babies were fed skim milk in an attempt to curb obesity and atherosclerosis.

Skimmed milk has low-fat content, but it is very high in protein. Relatively, high protein can damage the kidney as it processes excessive nitrogenous wastes.

According to the CDC, it is important that children should get fat in their diet for healthy growth and brain development. So, it is imperative for babies to drink full-fat whole milk instead of low-fat ones.

If you worry about your family history of obesity, cholesterol, and cardiovascular problems, then talk to your pediatrician. He will advise you on the best milk alternative that does not jeopardize your baby’s health without loading too much on fat.

Low-fat and nonfat milk may be given to babies older than two years old upon the doctor’s prescription.


Can I use non-dairy milk alternatives instead of whole cow’s milk?

Non-dairy milk substitutes (e.g. oats, soy, almond, rice) are not recommended to replace whole milk in a baby’s diet.

Most of these products are fortified with Vitamin D and calcium. However, they still contain significantly lesser key nutrients than whole milk. They are good additions to a baby’s diet but not a replacement.

What should I give my baby for milk allergy?

Only your pediatrician can check and confirm milk allergy. Once confirmed, he can offer you a safer but nutritive milk alternative.

Soy milk and toddler formula designed for babies with milk allergies are often prescribed.


When babies begin their solid food journey, make sure that he is getting the right nutrition through a balanced diet.

Don’t make your baby rely too much on milk, whether formula or whole cow’s milk. As for toddlers, don’t let them think that milk is their primary food. Otherwise, they may never learn to eat well and become picky eaters.

If you want to learn more about baby’s food and nutrition, you may also check these posts:

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Ann Marie is a licensed nurse in the Philippines. She experienced handling and assisting deliveries of newborns into the world. She also trained in labor rooms and pediatric wards while in nursing school - helping soon-to-be mothers and little kids in the process. Though not a mother by nature but a mother by heart, Ann Marie loves to take care of her younger cousins as well as nephews and nieces during her free time.

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