Tips for Transitioning from Formula to Cow's Milk

Medically reviewed by Karen Richardson Gill, MD on February 23, 2016Written by April Newton on February 23, 2016
formula to milk

At some point, most babies will stop exclusively drinking formula or breast milk and move onto cow’s milk.

Many babies will begin to show interest in supplementing breast milk or formula as they notice other members of the family drinking from cups and glasses. It’s a natural progression and one you can manage well with a few bits of important information.

Cow’s milk is just one of the options parents have to consider. Some parents also try goat’s milk or nondairy milks. These options don’t all have the same benefits so it’s important to know how they differ and what each offers, or doesn’t offer, for your child’s nutritional needs.

Here are a few things to consider when you are trying to decide what kind of milk your child will drink, where it will come from, and when to get your baby started on it.

Feeding Your Infant

Babies can only properly digest breast milk and formula for about the first 12 months of life. Breast milk is exactly what a baby’s developing digestive system can process and it’s high-fat content, along with vitamins and minerals, is imperative to good growth.

Formula is designed to mimic the content and characteristics of breast milk, including the easy digestion. Doctors recommend against feeding anything but breast milk or formula until a baby is about 4-6 months old, can sit up well, and has doubled birth weight to at least 13 pounds. At that point, you can consider introducing some beginning solid food but not cow’s milk.

Why Wait on Cow’s Milk?

Cow’s milk has many ingredients that a baby’s immature system can’t yet handle, and it lacks other ingredients that a baby needs to grow and develop well.

For that reason, pediatricians recommend that babies have only breast milk or formula, even once they start solid foods, until they are 12 months old. Additionally, cow’s milk is only advised after the first year if a child is eating a fairly balanced diet.

What Kind of Cow’s Milk?

Without question, your growing baby requires rich fat. Whole milk will most likely be the only choice your pediatrician recommends. In some limited cases, 2 percent milk will be considered — but don’t opt for it without consulting with your healthcare provider.

You don’t have to feel pressure to buy organic milk if it’s going to stress your budget. A 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found little evidence to suggest that organic milk is better than conventional milk.

Additionally, dairy groups around the country point out that milk is one of the most heavily regulated foods. As long as you are buying pasteurized milk, you are most likely making a good choice for your family.

What About Other Milk?

Goat milk is an animal milk option that some parents prefer. It has slightly less lactose than cow’s milk which some people think makes it easier to digest. Doctors say it’s low in some other essentials though, like folate, so be sure to give your child other foods rich in folate if you decide on goat milk. You may also consider giving a folate supplement, but discuss this first with your doctor.

Soy milk is one of the most popular nondairy milk options. It’s high in protein but low in calcium and fat. Choose a full-fat soy milk with added calcium to ensure your child gets the best nutritional support.

Almond milk is similarly low in fat compared to soy milk, but offers another generally safe alternative to cow’s milk. Again, be sure to choose a high-fat almond milk that is also high in calcium.

Rice and coconut milk are both very low in calcium and not typically recommended as a milk substitute for children for a number of reasons. Both are, however, safe to cook with if your family enjoys the taste.

Many nondairy milks contain added sugar and these are not recommended as substitutes for cow’s milk. Follow-up formulas marketed as cow’s milk substitutes often contain added sugar as well and do not provide any nutritional benefit over cow’s milk and a varied diet of foods.

What to Ask the Doctor

Before you choose to switch from, or supplement, your child’s breast milk or formula diet with cow’s milk or something else, make sure you go over your options with a doctor. Here are a few questions you can ask when you are considering your options.

  • How much milk should my child drink each day?
  • How do I know if my child’s diet is balanced enough to add milk?
  • Can my child drink milk at any time during the day?
  • Are other milk products OK to eat, like cheese, yogurt, or ice cream?
  • How will I know if my child is having trouble digesting cow’s milk?
  • What are the right alternatives to cow’s milk for my child?
  • What is the right kind of multivitamin for my child who drinks an alternative to cow’s milk?

The Takeaway

For a number of reasons, you will want to transition to cow’s milk, or another milk, at some point in your child’s life.

First, remember that breast milk or formula is the only milk a child should drink before 12 months of age. After the first year, whole milk is best for baby, but you can freely choose between organic or conventional. If cow’s milk isn’t for your child, there are a number of options you can discuss with your doctor to find the right fit for your baby’s belly.

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