Everything you need to know about milk for toddlers and transitioning at 12 months old.
Before 12 months old, your baby will be drinking only breast milk or infant formula (or both). Formula or breast milk provides all the nutrients your baby needs for the first 6 months of life, and will continue to be an important part of your little one’s nutritional intake even after solids are introduced around 6 months old. But as you approach that momentous first birthday, you’ll want to start thinking about transitioning to more appropriate sources of toddler nutrition.
Here’s everything you need to know about milk for toddlers and making the transition at 12 months old.
Why should I switch away from formula at 12 months?
You’ll want to transition away from formula at 12 months old. That’s because your toddler’s main source of nutrients and calories after the first birthday should be coming from solid food, not from liquids. Formula contains too many calories for toddlers, filling them up and leaving the little tummy space for the more important solid food.
Do I need to switch away from breast milk at 12 months?
If your baby is getting breast milk, you don’t have to stop—even at 12 months old. You can nurse and/or serve breast milk for as long as you’d like. That said, after 12 months old, the goal is for your toddler to get the majority of their nutrition from solid food, so even breast milk will become a secondary source of toddler nutrition after the first birthday.
What about toddler formulas?
Lots of companies will try to sell moms and dads on “toddler formula,” but the reality is that your healthy toddler doesn’t need it. Toddler “milks” or “formula” typically contain too many calories, which can dampen the appetite for more nutritious solid food. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends against using toddler formulas, saying that they don’t offer anything extra beyond what your toddler is able to get from healthy foods. Not to mention that many brands also contain sweeteners and fats.
Note: It’s a different story if your little one has weight gain or absorption issues. If this is the case with your toddler, you’ll get specific guidance from the pediatrician on how to feed your child.
Do I have to serve milk to my toddler?
The truth is, you don’t have to.
It’s not the milk that’s important for toddlers, it’s the nutrients milk provides: calcium, vitamin D, protein, and fat. Which means that if your toddler is getting those nutrients from food, you don’t have to serve milk as a drink at all! Shocking, yes… but true.
Note: Your toddler needs about 700mg of calcium and about 600IU of vitamin D per day, and there are plenty of food sources that can provide these important nutrients.
What is the best type of milk for toddlers?
When it comes to milk for toddlers, you can choose to serve pasteurized cow’s (or goat’s) milk, or you can opt for a plant-based milk alternative. Each type of milk has a slightly different nutritional profile, so you’ll want to be a discerning customer when choosing the right beverage for your toddler. If you do choose a plant-based alternative milk, be sure the brand you’re using is fortified with calcium and vitamin D (homemade nut milks, for instance, won’t contain enough important nutrients and are therefore not recommended as milk for toddlers). And choose the unsweetened kinds.
Here’s a quick rundown on how some plant-based milk alternatives compare nutritionally to cow’s milk:
- Soy milk – lower in fat compared to cow’s milk
- Almond milk – lower in protein and fat compared to cow’s milk
- Cashew milk – lower in protein compared to cow’s milk
- Pea milk – equivalent in protein to cow’s milk but lacking iron
- Oat milk – lower in protein and fat, and higher in iron compared to cow’s milk
- Hemp milk – lower in protein and higher in iron compared to cow’s milk
- Rice milk – lower in protein and fat compared to cow’s milk
- Coconut milk – Significantly lower in protein compared to cow’s milk
By the way, if you’re serving cow’s milk, opt for whole (full fat) milk from age 1 to 2, and then switch to lower fat milk after the second birthday (unless your pediatrician recommends otherwise for your specific child).
Note: Many nutritional experts including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that cow’s milk not be removed from toddlers’ diets unless there is a medical indication or specific dietary preference, and they further conclude that non-dairy milk alternatives are not considered adequate nutritional substitutes for cow’s milk.
How much milk does my toddler need?
Your toddler actually doesn’t need all that much milk. In fact, it’s recommended that your toddler drink no more than 16 to 20 ounces of milk per day.
This, by the way, is the reason why it’s recommended that you wean your toddler from the bottle at 12 months old, and no later than 15 months old. Bottle drinkers tend to take in too much milk, and that’s not a good thing (see next question). Hopefully you’ve started with a cup (I have some recommendations here) beginning at 6 months old, making the transition from bottle to cup relatively easy.
Why is too much milk not healthy for toddlers?
As you’ve learned, the main source of nutrients after the first birthday should be solid foods. Too much milk can dampen your toddler’s appetite for food. But that’s not the only reason too much milk for toddlers isn’t good.
Too much milk can reduce the absorption of important vitamins and minerals, can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, can mess up the gastrointestinal system and lead to constipation (or less commonly, diarrhea), and can cause unhealthy weight gain. Be sure to serve no more than 16 to 20 ounces of milk per day.
How do I make the switch to milk?
Many toddlers do fine with the cold turkey approach. Simply switch from formula in the cup to milk in the cup.
More sensitive or discerning toddlers may do better with a more gradual change to milk. You can mix formula or breast milk with milk, slowly decreasing the amount of formula and increasing the amount of milk over a week or two until your toddler acclimates. The transition will be even easier if you start serving formula or breastmilk cold (yes, straight from the fridge!) in the last few months of the first year. This way your toddler won’t be resistant to milk because of a temperature issue.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Recommended Drinks for Children Age 5 & Younger, September 2023
The Journal of Pediatrics, Impact of Cow Milk on Iron Status, October 2015
American Academy of Pediatrics, Cow’s Milk Alternatives, June 2022