6 Tips for transitioning your baby to cow’s milk

Updated Sep 27, 2022
Milk transition

On the list of confusing things parents deal with, transitioning your baby to cow’s milk has to be in the top three. There’s so much information — and so many opinions — about milk out in the world now, it’s no wonder it can be hard to figure out what to do.

Whether you're formula feeding or breastfeeding, this can be a big transition. We’ll break down all you need to know about adding whole cow’s milk to your toddler’s diet, including when to make the switch — and six tips to make it easier.


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The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends waiting until after your baby’s first birthday to introduce whole cow’s milk as a beverage. However, babies can begin eating other dairy products such as yogurt and cheese when they start solids around 6 months. Cow’s milk may be consumed mixed in with other foods during cooking or baking around this time as well. 

Cow’s milk isn’t nutritionally equivalent to breast milk or formula, and therefore it doesn’t meet your baby’s needs before they turn 1 year old. Additionally, it’s harder for babies to digest than breast milk or formula and may cause digestive upset if given too early.

Whole milk is also higher in protein and other minerals, which can be hard on your baby’s immature kidneys. Additionally, it doesn’t naturally provide enough of certain nutrients such as iron or vitamin C, which your baby needs for optimal growth and development.

Toddler drinking from glass of milk

Transitioning from formula or breast milk to cow’s milk takes time, and every baby’s experience is different. Some babies will have no issues with the switch, and others will need more time. Follow your baby’s lead and assess their solid food intake to determine if a gradual or quick switch is best for them. 

It’s important to note that cow’s milk isn’t considered a complete meal in the same way a bottle of formula or nursing session would be. Rather, it’s a beverage and part of an overall, complete meal. Oftentimes, it’s easiest to start by switching out one bottle or feeding with a mini-meal or snack that includes milk. For example, you may offer fruit and whole grain crackers served with milk as a snack. 

The quickest way to switch to whole cow’s milk after your baby turns 1 year old is to simply make the switch! This method is likely to work better if you have a baby who is eating a good amount of solid foods and is gradually reducing breast milk or formula intake on their own. Offer cow’s milk right away in a cup with a meal or snack. 

Other babies do better with a more gradual approach. One way to do this is to mix whole cow’s milk with breast milk or formula before serving. For example, using a 4 oz serving, start with 2 - 3 oz breast milk or formula and mix it with the remaining 1 - 2 oz of cow’s milk. As your baby adjusts, gradually increase the amount of cow’s milk that is served until you are giving a full serving of cow’s milk. 

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Change is hard. Here are a few tips for making this change a little easier.

Some babies experience digestive discomfort when switching to cow’s milk. It takes time for their little tummies to get used to it, and it may lead to constipation — especially if their overall liquid intake is down as they transition from breast milk or formula. To help, reduce the number of times you offer milk during the day or lower the amount served at each meal or snack. You may also offer more water throughout the day, keeping a cup close by and offering sips during playtime and other activities. 

Babies are used to drinking breast milk or formula at a warmer temperature than cold cow’s milk that comes out of the fridge. For some babies, you can make milk more palatable if you warm it up to room temperature or slightly warmer. Always test the temperature first before giving it to your baby. 

Unlike breast milk or formula, cow’s milk is not meant to be a meal. Therefore, offering alongside a meal or snack may help your baby accept it easier. Leave it accessible in a cup on their highchair tray or offer sips throughout the meal without pressure. They’ll likely give it a try as they get thirsty. 

You can help your baby get used to whole cow’s milk by including it in other foods, such as oatmeal or a smoothie. This allows your child to get used to milk while eating foods that might be more familiar to them. While this doesn’t help get them used to the taste of plain milk, it may help their bodies and digestive systems become more comfortable with cow’s milk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends phasing out your baby’s bottle use between 12 to 24 months of age. Therefore, when you start serving milk, try to start practicing how to use a cup, too. This may also help babies distinguish when they’re being served milk versus water, formula, or breast milk.

Many parents become concerned about their baby’s nutrition if they aren’t accepting cow’s milk. However, cow’s milk isn’t necessary for a healthy diet; it just happens to be an easy way for many kids to get in important nutrients. If your baby isn’t taking to cow’s milk, be sure to offer other dairy foods, such as yogurt or cheese, as well. 

If your baby has been diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy or your family chooses not to drink cow’s milk, there are many alternative options.

Soy milk has commonly been used as a substitute for cow’s milk since its nutrient profile is the most similar to cow’s milk and is generally widely available. However, there are many nut- and seed-based milks in grocery stores now.

Be sure to check the nutrition labels and ingredient lists for added sugars, as these should be limited in young children. Additionally, most cow’s milk alternatives are lower in calories and protein, so you’ll have to be conscious of adding those nutrients elsewhere. Most alternative milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, but check the nutrition label to be sure. 

Whole milk transition FAQ

Q: What if my toddler doesn’t seem to like milk?

A:

 Keep offering! Learning to like milk can be a gradual process for many toddlers. Try serving it warmer or mixed with other foods, and offer other dairy products such as yogurt or cheese to help meet their nutrient needs.

Q: How much milk should my toddler be drinking each day?

A:

 Toddlers should consume no more than 16 - 24 ounces of cow’s milk each day. Remember, milk is considered a beverage, not a meal. Drinking too much milk may lead to iron deficiency or displace solid food, which is needed for optimal growth and development.

Q: Is a cup of whole milk a meal, like a bottle of formula or breast milk?

A:

 Whole milk should be served as part of a meal, not considered a full meal like breast milk or formula. Think of adding milk to a meal or snack instead of replacing a bottle of formula or breast milk.

Q: What’s up with the “toddler” formulas I see in the store?

A:

 Toddler formulas have grown in popularity in recent years, but the reality is most children don’t need one. These formulas are fortified with a variety of nutrients, but most toddlers can meet those nutrients by consuming solid foods and drinking milk.

Q: When should we switch to lowfat milk?

A:

 Toddlers should continue drinking whole milk until their second birthday, as their needs for fat are still higher during this time. After that, many children switch over to lowfat milk. Talk with your pediatrician or a registered dietitian to determine which kind of milk is best for your child and family.

Baby formula shortage FAQ

Q: What should I do if I can’t find baby formula in the store?

A:

 If you are struggling to find baby formula there are a few things you can do: 1. Check with less popular stores in your area to see if they have any in-stock. 2. Ask store employees when they expect to receive formula deliveries and plan to arrive at the time the shipment arrives. 3. Ask friends and family to be on the lookout for baby formula in stores and online. 4. Discuss alternatives to baby formula with your child’s pediatrician; some pediatricians may suggest moving to cow’s milk or another mammal milk such as goat’s milk if your child is close to 1 year old. 5. Look into donor breast milk. 6. Consider relactating or inducing lactation.

Q: Can I breastfeed (or go back to breastfeeding) even if my supply dried up weeks ago?

A:

 In many cases moms are able to relactate even after months without breastfeeding or pumping. Working with a lactation consultant who specializes in relactation and induced lactation can eliminate the “guesswork” and provide you with a detailed plan.

Q: Can I switch my baby to cow’s milk before 1 year?

A:

 Some pediatricians support switching to cow’s milk before age 1; be sure to discuss this option with your child’s pediatrician.

Q: What about these homemade formula recipes I see my friends posting? Are they safe?

A:

 Homemade infant formulas can be very dangerous and are not a safe alternative to manufactured baby formula.

Q: I have formula now, but I’m worried about running out due to the shortage. Can I use more water to stretch out my supply?

A:

 No, infant formula must be prepared as instructed on the label or as prescribed by your child’s medical team. Diluting infant formula can cause health issues for babies.

Q: What about getting baby formula from other countries or Europe?

A:

 Purchasing infant formula from other countries has been a popular choice for families for at least a decade. However, formula manufactured in other countries are also difficult to find at this time.

Q: My friend/family member/neighbor offered me some of her milk. Is it OK to use that?

A:

 Donor breast milk is generally thought to be safe. However, there are several things to keep in mind when considering using milk from another mother: 1. What medications is she on? 2. How is milk collected and stored? 3. How recently was the breast milk expressed? 4. Has she had lab work done to ensure her milk does not contain harmful disease or viruses? 5. Are there any concerns about the mother’s lifestyle including smoking, drinking, using recreational drugs?

Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.