Milk & Milk Alternatives: A Dietician’s Guide for Toddlers

Nutrition, Behavior & More · Toddler Sleep

As your baby turns one, the standard recommendation and practice is to transition from breastmilk or formula to cow’s milk.  For many families, this may be the right choice, but it’s also important to know that it’s not the only choice.  In fact, there are many other options to consider that will still help your baby grow and thrive.  

First, it’s important to know that your child’s relationship with milk at 12 months should look different than it does at 15 months, at 17 months, and so on.  As your infant starts to develop into a toddler, he or she will start relying less on calories from milk and thus, eating more foods.  It’s also important that you start to transition from a nipple bottle to a sippy or eventually a straw cup.  There’s no magic number or objective point when you should do this, so gently transitioning and taking cues from your child can work well.  But generally speaking, I recommend parents transition away from the bottle entirely between 12 and 15 months.

The Milk Balance After Age 1

Traditional whole milk from cows has been and is popular because it is such a convenient source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and dietary fat.  Undoubtedly, these are important for proper growth and development for your child.  That said, there are other options out there to get those nutrients too… You just need to be smart in your approach. 

With any of the options (detailed below), my recommendation is that you always start with offering food.  Nutrient-rich meals are the main source of nutrition after age one.  After age one, children will gradually start to increase how much food they need and how well they are able to eat as milk intake is decreased.  A combination of whole foods, including a balance of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, should be served before any type of milk at all.  This might look like strips of whole-wheat toast with mashed avocado and sliced egg for breakfast.  Whatever the choice, we want children to be filling their stomachs with a variety of solid foods versus filling up on liquid first.  Following a meal or at a snack time, you can offer milk in a sippy or straw cup.

As a rule, aim for no more than 16 ounces of milk in a day.  Any more than that can interfere with your child’s food intake and desire for food.  As your little one is transitioning into toddlerhood, it’s also important to start weaning the bedtime milk and milk as soon as they wake.  Milk before bed can interfere with children’s sleep and contribute to night wakings.  Serving milk first thing in the morning for toddlers often contributes to early morning wakings.  This is a mental shift for us as parents after spending 12 months focusing heavily on liquids.  However, it’s a great, age-appropriate switch!

It Doesn’t Have To Be Cow’s Milk

Breastmilk

You might choose to continue to give your child breastmilk, which is great!  The frequency or times in which you offer may adjust to ensure meals come first.  However, your milk is still full of important nutrients and benefits for your baby.  Breastmilk is a ‘perfect’ food for your growing child, and you should feel no pressure to transition to cow’s milk at the one-year mark if you’re not ready.

Toddler Formula

For parents with a child that is underweight or really focused on caloric intake, a toddler formula can be a good option.  I like one that is made by a brand called Kabrita.  This is a formula that is made from goat milk, which can be easier to digest and provides the essential dietary fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Plant-Based Milk

If you choose to give your child plant-based milk, the type you choose will deliver different nutrition.  Generally speaking, almond, oat and coconut milks have little nutritional value.  Therefore, I don’t recommend them unless you’re choosing them to add to cereal or a smoothie, etc.  These milks will not provide the calcium, vitamin D, protein or fat you’re getting from other sources.  If you prefer plant-based milk, you’ll also need to make sure you’re supplementing those essential nutrients from other foods. 

Cow’s Milk

I want to make sure I’m very clear here.  If your family consumes dairy, and milk is your preference, that is totally OK! Cow’s milk is not a bad option for your child.  Choosing organic dairy options is important, and grass-fed is even better.  Conventional dairy comes from cows that are raised on large farms with no access to pastures.  They are fed GMO grain, receive artificial hormones to help them produce more milk, and given antibiotics to keep them healthy.  Inevitably, these additives end up in the milk you drink and give to your children.  Thus, buying organic is best.  As your pediatrician likely recommends, sticking with whole milk is also most beneficial.  Stripping the fat away from milk takes away key nutrients your baby needs and metabolizes differently in the body.  

Food Sources of Key Nutrients Found in Whole Milk

It’s also a smart idea to begin incorporating whole foods that are a good source of calcium and vitamin D.  Foods that provide dietary protein and fat are essential.  Vitamin D and calcium are critical for strong bone development.  Protein and fat help with satiety, growth, and development.

Non-dairy protein sources

Meat, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, nut and seed butters are great options.

Non-dairy fat sources

Omega – 3 fats are especially important for your child’s developing brain and are in wild caught salmon and ground flax and chia seeds.  (I like to add these to oatmeal, pancakes, and more.)  Other fats are avocado, nut and seed butters, and olive oil.

Calcium & Vitamin D

Some non-dairy milks are fortified with these, but others are not.  It’s important to read labels.  A simple sublingual supplement may be appropriate if you’re not using a fortified milk, but is best to check with your pediatrician. 

Kim McDevitt is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with a passion for guiding people on how to make cleaner, better-for-you wellness choices.  Specializing in family nutrition, she has worked with both children and adults to help them reach their nutrition goals.  When not coaching at an individual level, Kim is working in the Consumer Packaged Goods world.  She spends her time supporting the initiatives of many of the brands that you find lining the aisles of your favorite grocery story.  Kim has over 10  years of experience working on nutrition strategy and education, content development, and consumer and media relations. Her insights as a nutrition expert and consumer advocate add value to all of her work.   She’s a passionate advocate for clean labels and healthier products.

If you have questions about your child’s eating habits and are looking for more personalized support, reach out to Kim to book a call.


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