How to Transition Baby to Milk: Everything You Need to Know

All the information you need to smoothly and successfully switch baby to milk.

Most breastfeeding moms have a goal of pumping for the first year of their baby’s life.  As you approach your baby’s first birthday and begin weaning yourself from the pump, you are probably curious about how to transition baby to cow’s milk or an alternative form of milk.  It is a big transition for both you and your baby.  Milk will go from being your baby’s main source of nutrition to being a complementary beverage.  Read on for tips on how to introduce your baby to cow’s milk.

Related article: How to Stop Pumping (Finally!)

Do I need to give my baby cow’s milk?

If you plan to continue to breastfeed your baby after he turns one, he will not need any cow’s milk (or a milk alternative) if you are nursing 3-4 times per day.  That means if you are breastfeeding him in the morning, after work, and before bed (and even once or twice at night), he will not need any other milk.  Your breast milk is still just as nutritious and beneficial for him as it has always been, both physiologically and emotionally.  Breast milk actually has a higher fat content than cow’s milk. It also has all sorts of bioavailable nutrients, which are essential to baby’s brain development. 

When offering food, make sure to offer him nutrient dense sources of protein and fat (meat, fish, beans, tofu, eggs, avocado, nut butter, etc.).  You can also offer your baby foods made with dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, and butter.  Continue, also, to offer water with meals.  If family members or childcare providers question your choice, remind them that plenty of people groups around the globe did not historically drink cow’s milk, specifically those of Asian ethnicity.  Yet, they manage to obtain the vitamins and minerals they need via the nutrient dense food they eat.

Related article: Breast Milk Lipase: Why Your Breast Milk Tastes Metallic

If you are not planning to continue to breastfeed, then the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends giving your 12-month old two servings of dairy a day, or about 1-2 cups of milk.  The main reason for this is to meet your child’s caloric needs for growth and the amount of fat needed for brain and eye development.  Cow’s milk is also an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. 

One year olds need, on average, 1,000-1,400 calories, 700 milligrams (mg) of calcium and 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day.  One cup (8 oz.) of whole milk has 150 calories, 276 mg of calcium, and 174 IU of vitamin D.  That means two cups of whole milk per day meets a third of your child’s calorie needs, over 75% of his calcium needs, and close to 60% of his vitamin D needs.

One thing to be aware of when you transition baby to milk is that one-year olds need 7 milligrams of iron per day.  Cow’s milk is low in iron, and can also inhibit the absorption of iron in your baby’s body.  Low iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia which can cause fatigue and other symptoms.  To prevent this, make sure to offer your child plenty of iron dense foods (meats, enriched grains and cereals, beans, tofu, egg yolks, dark leafy greens in smoothies, molasses in oatmeal, etc.). 

Additionally, try to offer water with meals, and limit milk to in between meals.  Or, if you know that dinner is the most iron dense meal he typically eats, allow milk with breakfast and lunch, but only water at dinner.  You also can offer an iron supplement.  Many iron supplements have a metallic or undesirable taste which babies will refuse.  Iron supplements can also be hard on baby’s stomach and cause constipation.  Through lots of trial and error, we recommend one of the following baby friendly iron supplements:

Should I give my baby whole milk or skim milk?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children drink whole milk until they are two years of age unless there is a reason to switch to low-fat milk sooner.  If your child is sensitive to lactose, you can offer him Lactaid, Fairlife, or another form of lactose free whole milk.  If he has a milk protein sensitivity, you can try a milk alternative.

Can I give my baby almond milk (or soy milk, coconut milk, goat’s milk, rice milk, hemp milk, oat milk, etc.)?

If your baby has a milk allergy, you follow a dairy free diet, or he does not like the taste of cow’s milk, you can offer a milk alternative such as almond milk, soy milk, nut milk, hemp milk, oat milk, etc. when you transition baby to milk.  Because milk alternatives contain less protein and less calories than cow’s milk, it is essential to check the milk’s nutritional label and assess your child’s food intake to ensure he will take in enough calories and protein from food alone.  An August 2017 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that children who did drank non-cow’s milk were 0.4cm shorter for each cup of non-cow’s milk consumed compared to children who drank cow’s milk.  While the study stated that future research was needed to understand the casual relationship, it did recognize that non-cow milk is lower in protein and fat than cow’s milk. 

If you are planning to offer your one-year old a milk alternative, do not worry about getting in the weeds with protein and fat requirements.  Just make sure that he is eating plenty of nutrient dense sources of protein and fat (meat, fish, beans, tofu, eggs, avocado, nut butter, etc.). 

In order to help you determine which milk alternative to choose, here is a comparison table of common unflavored milk alternatives.  Be sure to check labels since calorie, fat, protein, and vitamin, content can vary among brands.  Look for a milk alternative that is unsweetened since added sugars are not recommended for toddlers.

A nutrient comparison chart of whole milk and milk alternatives to aid parents when they transition baby to cow's milk.

When should I begin to transition baby to cow’s milk?

If you are not planning to continue nursing, it is best to begin introducing whole cow’s milk to your baby while you still have breast milk available.  You can begin this process when baby is around 11 months old.

  1. Begin my mixing 1 part cow’s milk to three parts breast milk in your baby’s sippy cup.  Now is the perfect time to transition baby off bottles and to using sippy cups exclusively.  Continue this for one week as long as baby does not have any reactions. Recommended sippy cups for transition to cow’s milk:
  2. If baby handles it fine with no digestive issues or taste complaints, increase the amount of cow’s milk to half cow’s milk and half breast milk.  Do this for one week.
  3. If baby continues to handle the cow’s milk fine, increase the ratio to ¾-cup cow’s milk and ¼-cup breast milk.
  4. If all continues to go well, offer your baby a full cup of cow’s milk on the 4th week or at 12 months old.

How much cow’s milk should a one-year-old drink?

It is recommended that your baby drink 2-3 sippy cups (10-24 ounces) of cow’s milk per day after you transition baby to milk.  As mentioned above, cow’s milk affects the amount of iron your baby is able to absorb which can lead to iron anemia.  Additionally, too much milk can fill your baby’s stomach up to the point that they do not want to eat food.  Because of this, it is recommended to offer water with food and milk in between meals.  Keep in mind that even though milk has been your baby’s main source of nutrition for their entire yearlong life, it is time to transition to solid foods for most of their calorie needs. 

How to transition baby to whole milk. Transition baby to milk tips. Transition baby to sippy cup. Transition baby from formula to milk. | Work Breastfeed Mom #breastmilk #pumpingtips #baby

What if my baby doesn’t like the taste of cow’s milk?

If your baby is not a fan of cow’s milk there are a few things you can try to make it palatable. 

  1. If you still have breast milk available, you can continue to mix cow’s milk and breast milk at a lower ratio for a slower transition.  For instance, mix a tablespoon of cow’s milk with breast milk and try that for a few days.  Slowly and incrementally, increase the amount of cow’s milk to help baby get used to the taste.
  2. Try adding a little bit of flavor with a drop of alcohol free vanilla extract or in the form of chocolate or strawberry flavoring.  Go for powder flavorings instead syrups since powder contains less sugar than syrup.  Use a small amount at first and gradually decrease the amount as baby becomes accustomed to the flavor of plain cow’s milk.
  3. Try skim milk.  Although whole milk is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, many moms find that their one year olds will drink skim milk after having refused whole milk.  Skim milk has the same amount of protein as whole milk, but less fat.  If you offer skim milk, make sure your baby is getting fat in their food through cheese, yogurt, meats, eggs, nut butters, etc.
How to transition baby to whole milk. Transition baby to milk tips. Transition baby to sippy cup. Transition baby from formula to milk. | Work Breastfeed Mom #breastmilk #pumpingtips #baby

This article contains affiliate links. See our affiliate disclaimer for more info.