How to transition your baby to milk from breast milk or 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 turns a year old, 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 as well. Breast milk will still provide your toddler with a ton of nutrition, and is an excellent choice as they grow. If your baby is on formula, there is generally no need to continue. You can confidently switch to whole cow’s milk instead.
Before we get too far into this, I will be using the term "milk" in this article. But know that that can mean either cow’s milk or an appropriate alternative. Head here to read about the options and make an informed decision about what milk is best for your baby.
How much milk should a 1 year old have?
Regardless of what milk you choose, including breast milk, you want to be mindful of how much your child is getting. Too much milk can fill them up and decrease their appetite for food. After a year 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.
For cow and plant based milk I recommend no more than 16oz to drink during the day. An additional 8oz equivalent of dairy products like cheese or yogurt is ok. Try to keep all dairy combined to the equivalent of 24oz at most each day.
If you are breastfeeding it can be hard to tell how much your child is getting. I recommend keeping nursing sessions to 3-4 times a day. 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 with food as the primary source of nutrients and breast milk 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.
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 2 - 8oz cups a day. It is best to give these 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 from breast milk to whole milk (or another milk alternative)
If you are nursing and plan to stop, we want to make the transition gradually so that both you and your baby can get used to it. If you stop breastfeeding abruptly, there is the chance you could get painfully engorged or get clogged ducts, among other things.
Since you will only be replacing two feedings with glasses of milk, 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. The other will be switching two of the feedings over to milk with meals.
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. During the time that you would normally feed, offer your baby a drink of water, or 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.
Transitioning your baby to milk from formula
At it’s core, transitioning your baby to milk from formula 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, as sometimes the nighttime one 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, or give a meal or a snack if it is time for that. I’d recommend avoiding wherever you usually give them bottles, as 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 cow's milk to your baby's diet
Cow’s milk tastes different than breast milk. It also tastes different than formula. Some kids have no problem with it. Others have no interest and you have to get them used to it. Depending on your kid, you can do this at the same time as you are reducing the number of feeds. To do this, reduce the number of feedings at the same time you start to substitute milk. You can also do it right before you’ve reduced the number of feeds by replacing two of them with milk and keeping the rest as nursing sessions. Or you can do it right after, by reducing the number of feeds down to two and then switching them to 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! 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 cup?
From a logistical standpoint, plan to serve the milk in cups. You can do open cups, or straw cups. 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, like this one, 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 you 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 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.
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