Transitioning to Cow’s Milk

Introducing cow’s milk to your toddler can be intimidating for most parents. There are so many questions and gray areas around this transition, but hopefully these tips will help you make the switch.

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When to switch to cow’s milk?

You CAN begin giving your toddler whole cow’s milk when they turn 1 year old. However, many nursing moms are told they HAVE to switch to cow’s milk when their baby turns one year old, but the decision is completely up to you. According to kellymom, “There is no need to add cow’s milk to your toddler’s diet (or the equivalent nutrients from other milks or foods) as long as your baby is nursing at least 3-4 times per day. Cow’s milk is really just a convenient source of calcium, protein, fats, vitamin D, etc. – it’s not required.”

Furthermore, kellymom goes on to state that breastfeeding for a longer period of time is actually more beneficial to your baby. “Breastmilk has a higher fat content than whole cow’s milk (needed for baby’s brain growth), and all the nutrients of human milk are significantly more bioavailable than those of cow’s milk because it is species specific (not to mention all the components of mother’s milk that are not present in cow’s milk).”

However, you should only continue breastfeeding if that is what is best for you and your baby. If you feel like it is time to start the transition, you can do so anytime after their first birthday. If breastfeeding isn’t working out before the 1-year mark, it’s best to transition to formula until they are 12 months old. 

Why wait until a year old?

It is important to wait until that 1-year mark before transitioning for a few different reasons. Before 12 months, babies cannot digest the proteins in cow’s milk which can actually cause them to develop an allergy later in life. They also need more vitamins and nutrients than regular whole milk can provide for them to help them develop on track. 

Babies need more vitamin E, zinc, and iron, especially during the first year, and without the proper milk (breast milk or formula) they can end up with an iron deficiency since their bodies cannot properly absorb iron from cow’s milk. On top of all of those reasons, babies under 12 months cannot properly process the excess sodium, potassium, and chloride that is found in cow’s milk which can cause kidney problems. 

If your baby is already drinking formula, the 1-year mark can be a great time to switch to whole milk. Not only is it appropriate nutritionally, but it’s also much less expensive to purchase whole milk than formula. 

Regardless of whether your baby is breastfed or formula fed, this transition is 100% up to you as parents. This is your decision and you shouldn’t feel pressured into something you aren’t ready to do. And remember, this doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing situation. Many parents switch to whole milk during daytime meals or at daycare, but continue to breastfeed in the mornings or as a part of their bedtime routine. 

Keep reading for tips on transitioning to whole milk. 

Bottle vs Sippy Cup

Some parents try to switch to a sippy cup and transition to cow’s milk all at the same time. This might be hard for your little to adjust, so I would recommend starting with the sippy cup first. 

There is a great article by Children’s Therapy T.E.A.M. that goes through the opinions of multiple different child development specialists on the transition from a bottle or breast. You can read the full article HERE, but some of the points that popped out at me are as follows. 

From Pediatric Speech-Language Pathologist Perspective (Connie Clark, CCC-SLP and Amy Love-Smith, CCC-SLP)

“We feel that around 12 months of age, a child would preferably be transitioned from the bottle/breast to a cup with a straw or an open cup. A cup with a straw promotes more mature lip closure and tongue retraction, whereas a sippy cup continues to promote the immature sucking pattern associated with a bottle.”

Pediatric Dentist Perspective (Dr. Karen Green, DDS)

“The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends transitioning away from the bottle/breast when the infant is 1 year old. The reason behind this is that the child can develop severe early childhood caries (formerly known as baby bottle tooth decay).  A child who nurses on demand or is allowed to carry a cup of milk/formula around to suck on throughout the day is much more likely to develop these cavities. Milk (breast, cow, or soy) contains sugars. These are fermentable carbohydrates that are digested by oral bacteria into acids that can lead to enamel breakdown and eventually cavities. In addition, if the child uses the sippy cup like a pacifier, it can lead to tipping of the teeth (teeth shifting forward or backward).”

Pediatric Physician Perspective (American Academy of Pediatrics)

“Breastfeeding  can continue after 12 months if both the mother and the baby desire. For those infants that are bottle-fed, the recommendation is that bottles should be phased out between 12-24 months of age. When weaning from either breastfeeding or bottle, the AAP recommends using a sippy cup to transition. This transition to an open cup should occur as quickly as possible, preferably before 2 years of age.”

Ultimately, your goal is to get your child to drink from a standard cup, but sippy cups are a great way to bridge the gap between bottle and cup. Our son is one year old and is CAPABLE of drinking from a regular cup, but once he is done with his beverage he likes to throw it on the floor. We introduce regular cups when we are sitting next to him and can prevent him from tipping it over, but prefer sippy cups while we are all eating meals together and may not be able to watch him as closely. 

Our favorite options are the Munchkin weighted straw cups and the Munchkin toddler cups with lids. We started with the Munchkin 360 cup first to teach our son how to drink out of the edge of a cup. Now, he seems to prefer the other two styles more. The weighted straw cup is great because it has a flex straw and a weighted base so it moves with gravity. The problem with most sippy cups is that kids don’t hold them perfectly upright, they are normally tilted. The Munchkin straw cup is able to get almost every drop of milk out of the bottom due to its great design. 

Munchkin Weighted Straw Cups

Munchkin Toddler Cup with Lid

How to Introduce the milk?

If you decide one day that you are going to just “secretly” switch the milk in the bottle from breastmilk/formula to cow’s milk and your toddler won’t notice, think again. There is a difference in taste between the two. The way you introduce it can make a difference in how your little one reacts to the switch. Some babies are very easy-going and will be fine with a sudden change; others will need a very gradual transition. 

When you are ready to start transitioning to whole milk, there are a few different methods. 

First, you can start by adding a small amount to their bottle. You can do ¼ whole milk to ¾ breastmilk or formula. Each week you can slowly add more whole milk and less breastmilk or formula until your child is drinking full cups of whole milk. If they don’t seem too happy with the first introduction of whole milk, you can start with a very small amount like 0.5 ounces and slowly increase from there. 

Another common method is to just introduce a cup of whole milk once per day at a meal. If you child is okay with the whole milk, just start slowly switching to whole milk, one meal at a time until your child has completely transitioned. 

If your child is not interested in drinking enough cow’s milk straight from the cup, you can try sneaking it in their cereal, smoothies, oatmeal, or other meals. You can also try introducing whole fat yogurt, cheese, and other calcium rich foods to help compensate for the milk. Just be sure to let your pediatrician know if your child isn’t consuming enough milk so they can help ensure they are receiving enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet. 

Final Thoughts

If you are planning on switching to cow’s milk, make sure it is whole fat. Pediatricians recommend all milk be whole fat until your child is 2 years old, and then it’s still advised that you consult with them before switching to anything with less fat. Young children need this extra fat for all of the brain development that goes on in the first few years. 


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Kellymom “Nutrition for Breastfeeding Toddlers”: 

Children’s Therapy T.E.A.M. “When should parents start thinking about introducing a sippy cup?”: