The Best Milk for Babies After 1

Published December 2, 2021
By Renae D'Andrea

Here in the United States, it is generally assumed that at one year old babies will transition from breast milk or infant formula to cow’s milk. Many parents, whether it be for allergies, constipation, other medical conditions, or just personal concern, wonder if that is strictly necessary. 

So today we’re going to talk about what the best milk for babies after 1 is!

Important Nutrients in Cow’s Milk

When it comes to cow’s milk, there really are several reasons that it is recommended for toddlers.

Think of milk as a kind of transitional drink. It helps your child make the jump from a diet fully reliant on breast milk or baby formula and a little bit of solid foods before their first birthday, to one that is fully food-based after 2 years of age.

Most young children will not be able to go directly from milk (as in breast milk or formula) being their primary nutrient source to food being solely responsible for meeting their nutritional needs. 

So cow’s milk, or an alternative that we’ll talk about in a bit, helps to make up the difference and bridge the gap between 1 and 2 years of age.

In bridging that gap, we make sure that your child’s diet is optimized to support their brain development. Both with healthy fats and adequate calories, as well as other important nutrients.

Toddler holding out a glass of milk

Protein, Fat, Calories, Vitamins and Minerals

When we’re talking about cow’s milk, the nutrients that we are focused on the most that it provides are protein, fat, calories, and some vitamins and minerals.

For minerals, we are specifically looking at calcium. And most cow’s milk, at least here in the U.S., is fortified with vitamin D.

Now as you can imagine, cow’s milk is not the only thing that can provide these nutrients. But what cow’s milk does have going for it is that literally the nutritional guidelines are built around it.

We won’t get into the reasons behind that, and the dairy foods lobby that has potentially had a big say in that over the years. But I will say that at the end of the day, the fact that the guidelines are built around cow’s milk gives it a leg up.

It’s been researched a lot, we know what nutrients are in it and how much kids need. It makes cow’s milk a pretty straightforward recommendation for your toddler’s diet.

Types of Milk for Your 1 Year Old’s Diet

Now that we’ve gotten a little bit of the reasoning behind milk out of the way, let’s talk about the specific kinds of milk that are out there.

Breast Milk

Let’s start with breastmilk. Many people in the United States wean around a year of age. The World Health Organization actually recommends breastfeeding to two years and beyond, though.

That means that if you are still breastfeeding, and don’t plan to wean in the near future, then there is no need to introduce cow’s milk to your baby’s diet!

Your milk will be totally sufficient as long as you are nursing at least 3-4 times a day. It is still going to be important to focus on providing your baby with an adequate and varied diet of solid foods, as well. 

While we might be concerned with calcium for your baby’s diet in general, breast milk has calcium that is much more bioavailable than that in cow’s milk. This means that your baby needs less calcium from breast milk than they would from cow’s milk to meet their needs.

You can also serve other dairy products, like yogurt and cheese to help them get in additional calcium if you choose to.

Cow’s Milk

If your baby is on formula prior to one, or you are planning to stop breastfeeding, then the general recommendation is that you should introduce cow’s milk to your baby’s diet. (Check out this article for recommendations on how much milk to serve.) 

After one, there’s really no need to stay with a toddler formula or any other specially formulated drink. Our general nutrition recommendations are built around cow’s milk. They are there to help you plan a diet that is adequate for your baby. 

Most toddler formulas have sweeteners and other unnecessary ingredients.  They also tend to be more expensive than just plain cow’s milk! So after one, there’s no need to buy anything but regular cow’s milk.

Stick With Whole Cow’s Milk

Before your child turns two, you do want to stick with whole milk. Toddlers have extremely high fat needs in their diet. Whole milk has a high enough fat content to help meet their needs and to help with your toddler’s brain development. 

Nonfat milk, or even reduced fat milk, will not adequately meet your child’s needs before 2, like whole cow’s milk will. After 2, you can switch them to whatever milk the rest of your family drinks. But it is still a good idea to keep them on whole milk if you don’t need to change them.

Plant Based Milk

If for whatever reason your toddler can’t have, or you don’t want them to have, cow’s milk, then there are some other options. It seems like new milk alternatives are coming out every day, and they can be hard to keep up with!

carton of soy milk

For some specific guidance on the different nutrients in the various alternative milks, head to this breakdown of the nutritional differences in the various milks for toddlers

When it comes to non-dairy milk, it can be quite tricky to make a blanket recommendation. Your child’s diet and foods that they eat is going to be different from the next child’s.

Plant Based Milks For A Vegan Diet

If your child has a vegan diet, I would strongly recommend you to seek help from a dietitian one on one. It isn’t worth leaving this up to chance, as different milks have different nutrient profiles, fortifications, and things to be concerned with.

If your child eats other animal products, it lowers the number of nutrients (like vitamin B12) that we need to be concerned with.

In this case, soy milk or pea milk are generally the best milk to give your toddler. And while not quite as nutritionally comparable, you can also check out a few of the different oat milk products. These are a more recent addition to the market.

Non-Dairy Milks To Avoid For Toddlers

You want to avoid all the other plant-based milks out there. Things like almond milk, rice milk, and coconut milk simply do not provide adequate nutrients to help bridge the gap in your toddler’s diet that we talked about before.

When it comes to alternative milks, the trick really is that our general nutrition recommendations are made around a diet that consists of cow’s milk. 

That means that using a plant based milk will provide different nutrients. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means that you will need to be very intentional about your baby’s diet. And you might need to seek out some guidance from people well versed in plant-based nutrition.

What About Goat’s Milk?

Goat’s milk is becoming more popular in some circles of people who want to avoid cow’s milk. It is also a milk that is fairly popular around the world. But can goat’s milk be substituted for cow’s milk?

In general, goat’s milk is fairly nutritionally similar to cow’s milk. 

It has a stronger flavor that many people are not fans of, and also is usually more expensive than cow’s milk. 

In the US, most people explore the possibility of goat milk due to lactose intolerance or an allergy to cow’s milk. 

It’s important to note that goat’s milk does still have lactose in it. Although in slightly less amounts than cow’s milk. There is nothing to say that a lactose intolerant person would be able to handle it better than cow’s milk, though. 

From an allergy standpoint, there is a slightly different structure of proteins in goat milk. With that said, someone who has a cow’s milk allergy is often allergic to goat’s milk, too.

So the bottom line with goat’s milk is that it is ok to try for your baby if they can’t tolerate cow’s milk due to an intolerance. 

It is unlikely to solve an allergy problem. But if you feel strongly about trying it in that instance be sure to work closely with your child’s doctor. 

Goat’s milk is much less readily available, and more expensive than cow’s milk, so for most people there is really no benefit to drinking it.

I'm curious, what type of milk will you be serving your toddler?? Let me know below!

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  • Currently my toddler (25months) is having whole cow’s milk, but he keeps getting constipated and I wonder if too much dairy plays a part in that. I might try switching to unsweetened soy or pea. No one else in the house drinks cow’s milk anyway, so it’s even more practical for is. and hopefully it’ll help his constipation.

  • Hi, thanks for this timely article. My girl is 11 months and I am not ready to stop breastfeeding when she turns 1! My question is, if she nurses 3-4 times a day, about how many oz does she need if I need to leave milk while I’m at work?

  • Renae D'Andrea says:

    Once you know what you’re looking for nutrition-wise, it definitely makes it much easier to experiment! Fingers crossed for you!

  • Renae D'Andrea says:

    That’s going to depend on her! The best bet is to do some experimenting with how much she drinks ahead of time. If the majority of the time she’s nursing on demand, it’s still okay to let her drink as much as she wants to while you’re at work. But at that age some kids drink a ton, some kids don’t drink much at all really. So there’s no one answer.

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