Updated: Jun 4
Whether your baby is breastfed, formula-fed, or both, the day will come when it's time to switch to cow's milk. Your baby is growing up and beginning to eat and drink like a kid!
Making this switch doesn't have to be difficult—with a little patience, transitioning to milk can go smoothly.
In this article, we'll explore why it's developmentally appropriate for your baby to switch to milk and share some tricks to help them adjust.
In this article:
When to make the switch to cow’s milk
Your baby's diet for their first year
For the first 6 months of your baby's life, formula or breast milk provide all the nutrition and hydration that they need.
Around 6 months, they will begin eating solid foods and drinking small amounts of water, but will still receive most of their nutrition from breast milk or formula for the rest of their 1st year.
It is not recommended to switch to cow's milk before your baby is 1 year old.
Cow's milk is too high in protein and certain minerals (such as sodium and potassium) for your baby's developing kidneys to handle and can cause digestive problems. Conversely, it does not contain enough iron and vitamin E for your growing baby.
After age 1
By the time babies turn 1, their digestive systems have generally matured enough to handle drinking cow's milk.
Their eating habits have also undergone a significant change. They are most likely eating a significant amount of solid foods and no longer need to rely on formula or breast milk. At the same time, their calcium and vitamin D needs are increasing rapidly.
This is generally the best time to begin the transition from formula to whole milk.
It's best to phase out baby formula around 1 year. Your baby no longer needs all of the nutrients of formula. Moreover, a child who drinks too much formula will have less of an appetite for other food.
Now that your child is old enough to chew and swallow food, it's important to give them plenty of exposure to different flavors and textures. Learning to eat and like many foods will set your child up for a lifetime of healthy eating in a way that drinking formula will not.
When you begin to transition from formula, it is generally also a good time to begin weaning your child from a bottle by regularly giving them a sippy cup or open cup.
To learn more about baby formula, check out The Basics of Baby Formula.
If you are breastfeeding you do NOT need to stop and switch to cow’s milk. You should continue to breastfeed as long as it suits your and your baby’s needs. Just be sure that your baby is eating solid foods as well.
However, you may want to regularly give your baby small amounts of cow’s milk in a cup to accustom them to the flavor and process of drinking from a cup. That way, they will be used to drinking cow's milk when you do decide to stop breastfeeding.
Tips for transitioning
By 1 year of age, your baby is very used to the flavor of breast milk or formula and may not immediately enjoy the unfamiliar taste of cow's milk. For this reason, it’s usually best to not make your baby quit breast milk or formula cold turkey, but instead gradually phase in whole cow's milk.
Of course, every child is different and some can immediately switch to cow's milk with no complaints!
Although there is no set prescription for how to transition from formula to milk, the following tips can make the process easier for you and your baby:
When you mix oatmeal or other cereal for your baby, replace formula or breast milk with cow's milk. You can also mix small amounts of cow's milk into other familiar foods to dilute the milk's taste.
When you prepare a bottle for your baby, substitute whole milk for some of the breast milk or formula, starting with no more than 25% milk. Gradually add more milk and less formula, giving your baby time to adjust to the flavor before increasing the ratio of milk again.
Exclusively breastfeeding moms may want to pump some breast milk to mix with cow's milk in a bottle to help their babies adjust to the taste.
If you are breastfeeding or have been giving warm formula to your baby, you can warm their milk in the same way—cold milk could be a shock! Just remember that you should never warm any drink for your baby in the microwave. Instead, use a bottle warmer or simply put the bottle in a bowl or mug of hot water for a few minutes and swirl the bottle gently to even out the temperature. It's also perfectly fine to offer your baby cold milk.
To learn more about preparing a baby bottle, see Baby Bottles: How to Choose and Use the Best Bottles For Your Baby.
The nutritional benefits of cow’s milk
Whole cow's milk has many of the important nutrients and vitamins that your child needs to grow and develop. Some of the main benefits of whole cow's milk are the following:
Note that low fat milk does not contain all of these nutrients in the quantities that your toddler needs, so you should stick to whole milk for at least the first two years.
To get the nutrients that they need, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends:
1 to 2-year old should drink approximately 16 ounces (2 cups) of whole cow’s milk each day.
from 2 to 3 years, this can increase to 20 ounces (2.5 cups) of milk.
If your child does not like drinking milk, or cannot drink cow's milk, they can receive the same nutritional benefit from two servings of other dairy products—such as cheese, yogurt, or their non-dairy equivalents—per day. After they turn 2, this should increase to two and a half servings.
Other dairy products are not always fortified with vitamin D, so ask your healthcare provider if your child needs any other vitamin supplement.
However, remember that a cup of whole cow’s milk is not a full meal for your child the way that a bottle of formula or breast milk used to be. Your child’s nutritional needs have changed and they need the whole range of nutrients that eating a varied diet of solid foods—including dairy products—provides.
This means that the amount of milk that your toddler drinks should be significantly less than their previous formula intake. The AAP recommends that 1-year olds drink no more than 24 ounces of whole milk per day.
Milk should function just as a drink and source of certain key vitamins—your child should get most of their calories from table foods.
Moreover, too much calcium can actually inhibit the absorption of iron, so drinking too much milk can lead to anemia.
It can be helpful to offer milk at the end of a meal rather than at the beginning. Children who drink milk first often consume more, leading them to feel full before consuming an adequate amount of solid foods.
Consult with your healthcare provider if you're concerned that your child is drinking too much milk or is not getting enough nutrients from their diet.
Alternatives to cow's milk
Dealing with a cow’s milk allergy
Approximately 2.5% of children under age three have cow's milk allergies and must drink a non-dairy alternative milk.
The best alternative is usually fortified soy milk, which has added calcium and vitamin D. Soy milk is also higher in protein than most other alternative milks.
However, be aware that 50% of children with a cow's milk protein allergy may also react to soy protein. In this case, you can consider using another type of non-dairy milk, including tree nut milks (such as almond or cashew), oat, rice, or hemp milk.
Always consult with your pediatrician to determine the best alternative milk for your child.
Regardless of whether you give your child cow’s milk or a non-dairy option, choose a plain milk that has NOT been sweetened or flavored.
Sweetened and flavored milks do not provide any additional nutritional benefits and contain more sugars that can cause cavities and weight gain.
Vitamin fortified juice is not a good substitute for dairy products or non-dairy alternatives—it does not contain enough protein or other nutrients and can also contribute to cavities and weight gain when kids drink too much.
You have likely seen containers of toddler formula in the store along with infant formula. Toddler formula has a different balance of nutrients designed for older babies and toddlers.
Unless your child has special medical or feeding needs, there is no reason to give them toddler formula.
As long as they are eating a varied diet of healthy foods, including dairy or dairy substitutes, and are gaining weight and developing as expected, they do not need toddler formula.
As with cow’s milk, drinking too much toddler formula will leave your child with less of an appetite or incentive to try different solid food and expand their palate, which is necessary to set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating.
If you are concerned that your child is not growing or developing appropriately, always consult with your pediatrician before giving them toddler formula or any other supplement.
Q: What if my child doesn't like cow's milk?
If your child resists drinking cow's milk, you may have tried to introduce it too quickly. Take a step back and try mixing it with formula, gradually incorporating a greater percentage of cow's milk.
Your child might also be struggling to adjust to drinking cold milk if they are used to drinking warmed formula or breast milk. You can try to make the switch by starting with warm milk and gradually offering it at a colder temperature.
Alternatively, your child just may not like whole milk! If this is the case, don't worry—children are not required to drink milk. Make sure that they are getting plenty of calcium from other dairy products, such as cheese and yogurt, and give them water to drink. You can try introducing whole milk again when they get a little older.
Q: When should my child switch from whole milk to low fat milk?
You should keep giving your child whole cow's milk and/or full-fat dairy products until they are at least two years old. After age two, ask your healthcare provider if you should switch to low-fat milk.
Q: Should I give my child milk with their meal?
It depends on your child's appetite and eating style. Because milk can be filling, you may want to offer it after your child has already eaten some of their meal to make sure they eat plenty of solid food first. You can also offer milk in between meals as part of a snack.
Q: I can't find baby formula in the store—can I give my baby cow's milk before they turn one?
As discussed above, it is not recommended to give a baby cow's milk before they turn one.
In an emergency, your pediatrician may advise you to use cow's milk as a short-term option until you can buy formula, but you should always consult with them first.
If you have any questions or concerns around switching over from formula or breastmilk to cow's milk, talk with your doctor before making any changes.
Overall, remember that having patience and taking the process as gradually as your baby needs are key for helping ensure that the switch is easy and comfortable for your baby--and you.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Cow’s Milk and Milk Alternatives, available at https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/foods-and-drinks/cows-milk-and-milk-alternatives.html
Global Nutrition Services, LLC, The Importance of Calcium to Children, available at https://hsc.unm.edu/medicine/departments/pediatrics/divisions/continuum-of-care/pdf/importance-of-calcium-to-children.pdf
Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids, available at https://healthydrinkshealthykids.org/