How to transition your baby to milk from breast milk or infant formula can leave even the most confident parents full of anxiety. How should you do it? When do you start? Do I even need to give milk? I've got all your answers here!
When Can You Transition off of Breast Milk or Formula?
As your baby's first birthday approaches, you can start thinking about transitioning your baby to milk from breast milk or formula.
If you are breastfeeding and choose to continue after a year, know that you don’t need to serve cow’s milk or alternative milks as well. Breast milk is recommended by the World Health Organization to two years and as long after as you wish. Breast milk will still provide your toddler with a ton of nutrition, and is an excellent choice as they grow.
If you use baby formula, there is generally no need to continue after their first year of life. You can confidently switch to whole cow’s milk or appropriate milk alternatives instead.
For help with what milk to choose for your toddler, head to this article on the best milk for a 1 year old.
What I Mean By "Milk"
Before we get too far into this, I will be using the term "milk" in this article to cover anything that is used as a toddler drink and is similar to milk. Breast milk, cow's milk, soy milk, and oat milk can all be appropriate. Rice milk, almond milk, and even skim milk are not the best alternative for your toddler.
One of the main purposes with milk for toddlers is to help meet their calorie needs. Your baby's diet is transitioning between a primarily milk diet and one that is fully reliant on solid foods as their main source of nutrition.
This doesn't happen overnight, and we want to support their brain development and overall growth as they make this transition. This happens with a drink full of appropriate essential nutrients, including fat content and protein amount in milks.
Read here about the best milk for your toddler and make an informed decision about what milk is best for your baby and family.
How Much Milk Should a 1 Year Old Have?
Regardless of what milk you choose, including breast milk, you want to be mindful of the amount of milk your child is getting.
Too much milk can fill them up and decrease their appetite for other nutritious foods, especially ones that will help them get enough iron.
After 12 months of age, they need to be getting a decent amount of nutrients from a variety of foods. Milk can’t meet all these needs, regardless of the type.
I recommend no more than 16 ounces of whole milk or a plant-based alternative to drink during the day. An additional 8 ounces of equivalent dairy foods like cheese or yogurt is ok. Try to keep all dairy combined to the equivalent of 24 ounces at most each day.
If you are breastfeeding it can be hard to tell how much your child is getting. In general you do not need to give less breast milk to your toddler. It is okay to continue to feed on demand. I do recommend keeping nursing sessions to 3-4 times a day if your child has any problems getting in a varied or balanced diet.
Do your best to have the nursing sessions after meals to top your child up, instead of before. This will help them to eat foods first, and then get their fill of breast milk afterwards.
If you are still nursing a lot and find that your child isn’t very interested in food, it is worth experimenting with timing of breastfeeds and frequency. The goal is to encourage a good balance. Food is the primary source of nutrients and breast milk will be augmenting it.
The Logistics of Transitioning Your Baby to Milk
When you are ready to transition your baby to milk from breast milk or formula, there are a couple of strategies that can help to start the weaning process.
At the end of the day, no matter what you did before one, if you are giving milk other than breast milk after one we want to shoot for the goal of about 16 ounces a day. It tends to work the best if you think of this 16 ounce amount as 2-8 ounce glasses for transitioning purposes. Then you are working to essentially replace 2 bottle or nursing sessions with 2 glasses of milk. Instead of trying to do a random number of glasses of milk throughout the day.
They may not drink all of those 8 ounces at each session. That's okay! Work on making the transition and getting them used to the milk. Then you can work on increasing the amount if need be.
It is best to give the two glasses with, or at the end of, a meal. Milk is very filling, and giving it between meals to sip throughout the day is the equivalent of grazing. Grazing can cause an increase in picky behaviors and a decrease in appetite. So keep the milk to meals!
Transitioning Away from Breast Milk
If you are nursing and plan to stop, it is a good idea to make the transition gradually. Then both you and your baby can get used to it. If you make a big change and stop breastfeeding abruptly, there is the chance you could get painfully engorged or get clogged ducts, among other things.
You will only be replacing two feedings with glasses of milk. So you will essentially be transitioning your baby to milk two ways.
One will be decreasing the number of feedings if you are nursing more than two times a day. That's what we'll talk about here. The other will be switching two of the feedings over to milk with meals, which we'll talk about in just a bit.
Start by Decreasing How Often You Nurse
If by one your baby has not naturally decreased their number of feeds, start to slowly put some restrictions on nursing.
Choose one feeding to start with, preferably not the most important one. Nighttime ones tend to be the hardest to give up, but there is no perfect time to start with.
During the time that you would normally feed, offer your baby a drink of water. You can also offer a meal or snack if it is time for that. Try to avoid the chair or wherever you would have nursed previously.
If it is not mealtime, try distracting them by playing with toys or going somewhere to keep them busy. You want to keep their mind off of the fact that they would normally be nursing.
Do this with each feed until you have gradually worked your way down. Ideally wait about 3-7 days between each feed that you drop to give your body time to get used to it.
The nighttime feed can be the hardest, and is often the last to go. When it comes time for this, try incorporating something else into your bedtime routine to take it’s place.
Offer lots of cuddles and love, and be patient! But do set your intention and stick to it as much as you can. It is more difficult for everyone involved if you waffle back and forth instead of sticking to your guns about dropping the feed.
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Transitioning Away from Your Baby's Formula
At it’s core, transitioning your baby away from formula and bottle feeding is going to follow the same principles as transitioning away from nursing.
Start by reducing their feeding times by one. Choose one that is not the most important to them. Sometimes the bedtime bottle can be the hardest to get rid of. It’s best not to start with that one!
During the time that you would normally have given them a bottle, try giving them a drink of water. You can also give a meal or a snack if it is time for that.
I’d recommend avoiding wherever you usually give them bottles. It can increase their confusion if you are in the same place as usual but aren’t giving them a bottle.
Try distracting them with toys, or going somewhere, during the time you would normally have been feeding them a bottle if it is not meal time. Do this gradually one by one until they no longer need more than two bottles a day.
Adding in Milk to Your Baby's Diet
Cow’s milk and plant-based milks taste different than breast milk. It also tastes different than formula. Some kids have no problem with it and make the switch cold turkey. Others have no interest in the new taste and you have to get them used to it.
Depending on your kid, you can get them used to the new milk at the same time as you are reducing the number of bottles or nursing sessions.
To do this, reduce the number of breast milk or formula feedings at the same time you start to substitute milk so it is essentially just one big change for them.
You can also add milk right before you’ve reduced the number of overall milk sessions by replacing two of them with milk and keeping the rest as nursing or bottle feeding sessions.
Or you can do it right after you reduce nursing or bottle sessions. Reduce the number of bottle or nursing sessions down to two, and then switch those to sessions to milk.
For those extra cautious kids, you can also mix your milks. Start with something like an ounce of milk mixed into their formula or pumped breast milk. Once they get used to it, increase the amount of milk a bit. A few days later you can do another increase. And then eventually you will be at 100% milk.
Which method you choose to do will depend on the personality of your child, as well as your own! When you transition your baby to milk, it's important to know that it can be a gradual process for some kids! It may take time, but do your best to commit to seeing the process through.
Have the end goal in mind of serving two glasses of milk with meals each day. Know that that is what you’re working to switch to, and work with how your child might respond best.
There are bound to be bumps in the road, but just keep working towards your goal.
Should You Serve Milk in a Bottle or a Sippy Cup?
From a logistical standpoint, plan to serve the milk in cups.
You can do an open cup, or a straw cup. I recommend avoiding sippy cups across the board, as they can interfere with proper oral-motor development.
If you have a kid that is reluctant to drink milk, you may want to have a specific cup that you only serve milk in. The last thing you want is for them to expect one thing in their cup, go to drink it, and discover something else.
If your kid is one who doesn’t mind milk, you can just go straight to giving them a cup of milk instead of breast milk or formula.
If your child doesn’t like milk, try mixing it in gradually.
With breastfeeding, try pumping a bit of milk for them. If you give formula, start with a glass of formula.
Mix in about 1 oz of cow's milk to their breast milk or formula and serve it. Then slowly increase the proportion of milk in the glass over about a week, until it is 100% milk and your child is accepting it.
Start with just one feeding a day of milk, and then once they are used to it add the second one.
Transitioning from a Bottle to a Cup
If your baby is formula fed, or you exclusively pump, your baby is likely fairly tied to their bottle. It is something that provides comfort to them, and can sometimes be hard to replace.
The theory is the same when you transition your baby to milk from a cup as when weaning from nursing. You can do it gradually, but commit yourself.
Start by replacing one bottle with a cup. Choose a feeding session that is not nighttime, or whatever their most important bottle time is to them.
You can talk to them about how the bottles are going bye-bye, even if you don’t think they will understand you. You can start by giving them a cup in the normal place you would give a bottle.
Depending on the child, though, that can cause more issues. Get one type of cup, and designate that as your milk cup. You want them to know what to expect in the cup.
Again, know that your goal is two cups of milk with meals. Work within the needs of your child’s personality to get there.
Does Your Child Even Need Milk?
One of the more common questions that comes up around how to transition your baby to milk is do kids even need milk after one? And the answer is, it depends.
Technically there is nothing that cow’s milk (or an alternative) can offer that we can’t get from other sources.
But between the ages of one and two, your child is in a transition period. They go from relying mainly on liquid calories, to a fully food-based diet at two.
It can be hard for many kids to abruptly make that transition, and that is where milk can come in handy. It is an easy source of concentrated calories and nutrition that can really help to cover your child’s nutritional bases.
The Bottom Line When It Comes to Milk
Serving the important nutrients to your child is the number one thing you can do to help them thrive.
If your child eats enough to cover all of their nutritional bases, from calcium to iodine, protein, vitamin D, and healthy fats, then you may not need to transition your baby to milk.
Keep in mind that yogurt and cheese are going to provide a lot of the same nutrients as cow’s milk. So if your kid eats a lot of those, it is easier to think about not serving milk at all.
But know that it is very hard for kids between the ages of one and two to consistently do that.
If you think your child can, I’d recommend talking to your pediatrician or healthcare provider and a dietitian one on one before cutting out all forms of milk to drink.
Remember, think of the time between one and two years as a transition period.
They are learning to get everything they need from food alone, but it helps to give them this time period to gradually get there without compromising their nutritional status.
If you want to know how to serve foods that will help your child to meet all their nutritional needs, including calcium, iodine, and healthy fats grab the ebook “Grow Baby Grow”.
Full of tons of food ideas to help you serve a nutrient-rich diet, it will help to make sure your child is starting out their food journey on the right foot while you transition your baby to milk!
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