When you think about cow’s milk and baby formula, it may seem like the two have a lot in common. And it’s true: They’re both (typically) dairy-based, fortified, nutrient-dense beverages.
So there’s no one magical day when your baby will wake up ready to make the leap from formula to straight cow’s milk — and, for most kids, there probably won’t be an a-ha moment when they cast the bottle aside in favor of a cup. Still, there are some basic guidelines for when to transition to whole milk.
In general, experts recommend weaning your baby off of formula and onto full fat dairy milk at around 12 months of age. However, like most baby-raising standards, this one isn’t necessarily set in stone and can come with certain exceptions.
Here’s a look at when and how to get your little one moo-vin’ on up (yep, we went there) to milk.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and American Academy of Family Physicians recommend that, in the year between 12 and 24 months old, babies should receive 16 to 24 ounces per day of whole milk. Prior to this time, you’ve probably been discouraged from giving your little one dairy milk — and for good reason.
Until about 1 year of age, infants’ kidneys simply aren’t strong enough to tackle the load cow’s milk throws at them. “Cow’s milk contains high amounts of protein and minerals, such as sodium, which are difficult for an immature baby’s kidneys to handle,” says Yaffi Lvova, RDN, of Baby Bloom Nutrition.
However — even though there’s no flip of a switch from “unready” to “ready” inside your baby’s body — around 12 months of age, their system becomes well-developed enough to digest regular milk. “By this point, the kidneys have matured enough to be able to process cow’s milk effectively and healthily,” says Lvova.
Besides, once your baby reaches 12 months, beverages can take on a different role in their diet. Whereas once your child depended on liquid formula or breast milk to meet their nutritional needs, they can now rely on solid foods to do this job. Beverages become supplemental, just like they are for adults.
There may, of course, be special circumstances where your baby isn’t quite ready to start cow’s milk at age 1. Your pediatrician might instruct you to hold off temporarily if your baby has kidney conditions, iron-deficiency anemia, or developmental delays.
You may also be advised to give your baby 2 percent milk (rather than whole) if you have a family history of obesity, heart disease, or high blood pressure. But don’t do this without a doctor’s guidance — most babies should absolutely be drinking full fat milk.
Also, if you’re breastfeeding, introducing cow’s milk doesn’t mean you have to stop nursing.
“If a mother is interested in continuing the breastfeeding relationship, or in feeding the 12-month-old pumped breast milk instead of switching to cow’s milk, that is also an option,” says Lvova. Just consider this another healthy, supplemental beverage for your growing kiddo.
And now the million-dollar question: How exactly do you make the transition from one creamy drink to the other?
Thankfully, you don’t have to stealthily remove baby’s favorite bottle the minute they blow out the candle on their first birthday cake. Instead, you may prefer to switch from formula to milk somewhat gradually — especially since some babies’ digestive tracts take a little time to get used to a steady intake of cow’s milk.
“In cases where a child experiences tummy upset or constipation, mixing breast milk or formula with cow’s milk may smooth the transition,” says Lvova. “I recommend starting with 3/4 bottle or cup breastmilk or formula and 1/4 bottle or cup cow’s milk for a few days, then increasing to 50 percent milk for a few days, 75 percent milk for a few days, and finally giving the baby 100 percent cow’s milk.”
According to the AAP, babies from 12 to 24 months should receive 16 to 24 ounces of whole milk every day. It’s possible to break this up into numerous cups or bottles throughout the day — but it may be easier and more convenient to simply offer two or three 8-ounce servings at mealtimes.
Despite their apparent similarities, formula and cow’s milk do have notable nutritional differences. Dairy milk contains more protein and certain minerals than formula. On the other hand, formula is fortified with iron and vitamin C in the appropriate amounts for infants.
However, now that your baby is eating solid food, their diet can fill in any nutrition gaps left by transitioning off formula.
At this point, both formula and milk are just a part of baby’s overall healthy eating, which can now include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meats, legumes, and additional dairy products besides milk.
If you know your baby has a milk allergy, you may be wondering about your options when it’s time to say goodbye to formula. Traditionally, soy milk has been an acceptable substitute for dairy milk at this age because of its comparable protein content.
These days, though, a host of alternative milks on grocery shelves can crowd the decision of which one to give your baby — and they’re not all created equal.
Many alternative milks — like rice milk and oat milk — contain added sugars and nowhere near the protein content of dairy or soy. They also don’t often get fortified with the same extra nutrients that get put into cow’s milk. And many are far lower-calorie than soy or dairy — possibly a boon for adults, but not necessarily what a growing baby needs.
If cow’s milk isn’t an option for your baby, an unsweetened soy milk is a solid choice, but talk to your pediatrician about the best alternative.
Now that your kiddo has more autonomy — and some new words in their vocabulary — it’s likely that, before long, they’ll be asking for other drinks besides milk.
So can you occasionally give in to the requests for juice or a sip of your soda? Best not to.
“Juice can be used medicinally to treat constipation, often a concern during this time as the child adapts to cow’s milk,” says Lvova. Other than that, skip the sweet drinks. “Juice for pleasure or hydration isn’t encouraged because of its sugar content in the absence of other nutrition.”
The AAP concurs, saying, “the best choice beverages are really simple: plain water and milk.”
Just like how — in your humble opinion — nobody has cuter dimples or a more irresistible smile than your little one, no baby is quite like yours in terms of development, either.
It’s possible that there may be reasons to delay switching your baby to whole milk — but most babies will be ready to transition at 12 months.
Ease into the transition with a mix of formula and milk over a couple of weeks, and talk to your pediatrician if you have questions or concerns.