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Milk for Babies and Toddlers: When, What, and How Much?

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Are they drinking enough milk? Are they drinking too much milk? Are they drinking the “right” kind of milk? I know, choosing milk for your little one can be such a challenge! This is a topic that I’m asked about time and time again, and so I hope many of you, mamas, will find this post useful!

Does it have to be cow’s milk?

Let’s clear something up first. No, your baby does not absolutely need to drink cow's milk. I get this question all the time. If you feel strongly about it, you really don't have to give it. Or maybe your baby isn’t a big fan of cow’s milk. That's okay too. I know, here in the US there's a strong push for choosing cow’s, but it doesn’t have to be the case for everyone.

Milk for Your Baby 0-6 months

Babies at this age need only breast milk or infant formula to get enough fluids and proper nutrition. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and then to continue alongside complementary nutritious foods up to the age of 2, or for as long as you and baby wish.

If breastfeeding doesn’t work or you choose not to breastfeed, infant formula is the only suitable alternative to breast milk and should be your baby’s sole source of nutrition for the first 6 months.

Milk for Your Baby 6-12 months

Babies between 6 and 12 months should still rely on breast milk or infant formula to meet most of their daily nutritional needs. Breast milk and/or formula also provide all of the fluids a baby needs during this time. Once solid foods are introduced, which is typically around 6 months, try adding in a couple of sips of water during meal times. It helps babies develop cup-drinking skills and learn to like the taste of water, which might take time.

If a baby is breastfed by a mother who is drinking cow's milk, or is formula fed with traditional infant formula, then they have already been exposed to cow's milk protein. Most babies can begin consuming dairy foods around 6 months of age — after a few first solid foods have been introduced. Plain, whole-fat or whole Greek yogurt is a good first form of cow's milk protein for babies to try. Avoid the added sugar commonly found in yogurt marketed to babies and toddlers. You may start offering cow’s milk or other alternatives by using them in cooking, but, at this age, it shouldn’t be offered as a main drink to replace either breast or formula milk.


Why isn’t cow’s milk okay before 12 months?

It’s best to wait until after your child’s first birthday to introduce cow’s milk because it is not well-suited to meet their nutritional needs at this stage. Serving cow’s milk before your baby is 12 months old could put them at risk for intestinal bleeding. Cow’s milk also has too many proteins and minerals for your baby’s kidneys to handle.


Milk for Your Baby 12-24 months

Kiddos between 12 and 24 months old can be introduced to plain, pasteurized whole milk, which is full of nutrients that growing bodies need such as protein, calcium, vitamins A, D, and B12, potassium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and niacin. The recommended amount is approximately 2 servings of dairy per day, or about 16 to a maximum of 24 ounces of whole milk per day (2 to 3 cups per day). Whether your baby needs 2 cups or 3 will depend on how much solid food they eat. As your baby gets closer to 2 years and transitions to eating more food at mealtimes, they will need less milk.

If your baby is older than 12 months and you’re still breastfeeding, you absolutely do not need to stop! Stop when and how you want, not because you feel your baby isn't getting enough nutrients. Breast milk is a great source of nutrients, as well as so many other things, and is really still the best option. Think of cow’s milk as the substitute for breast milk, not the other way around.

Milk for Your Toddler 2+ years

After the age of 2, children will be starting to adopt a more varied, balanced diet and may rely less on milk as a source of nutrients. Two cups of milk per day (or 16 oz per day) is recommended for kiddos at this age. Depending on your child’s diet and weight, your health care provider might advise transitioning to plain, pasteurized fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) milk. If your little one cannot drink cow's milk, they can meet their dairy requirements by eating yogurt and cheese, but vitamin D may be needed as a supplement since not all yogurts are fully supplemented with vitamin D. Talk with your child’s pediatrician before giving any supplements.

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What about plant-based, non-dairy milks?

As part of well-planned diet, plant-based milks including rice, hemp, oat, almond, and other nut milks can be offered or used in cooking. However, it’s worth noting that most of them are not nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk. Some plant milks do have added nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D, but the amounts vary by type and brand. So, in general, these milks are not recommended as a direct replacement for cow’s milk in your child’s diet. Also, many plant-based milks come in both sweetened and unsweetened varieties. Sweetened varieties usually have added sugars, so read the food label carefully!

Although these types of milk aren’t the first recommendation, they may be a good choice if your child is lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy milk, or if your family has chosen not to eat animal products. The best non-dairy milk alternatives are Goat's milk, Soy milk, and Pea milk. It’s highly encouraged to consult with your pediatrician or a registered dietitian nutritionist to choose a milk substitute for your child and discuss how to make sure their overall diet has enough of the key nutrients found in milk.

So which one do I choose?

To help you with this challenging task, here is what to take in consideration when looking at which milk might be best for you:⠀

1️⃣ Understand that no milk is necessary, however, it can be a very convenient form of calories, protein, fat, calcium, Vitamin D and B12...all nutrients that are very important for growth in small children.⠀

2️⃣ Compare the nutrients that each type of milk contains (check table below).

3️⃣ Compare the nutrients that each type of milk is missing (if not offering cow's milk) and compare that with the type of diet your baby or toddler eats. Not just what type of food, but how much they are actually eating. ⠀

...Can they make up their calcium needs through the amount of broccoli or beans they're eating? ⠀

...Can they get enough protein while they get through this carb-o-holic phase they're in?⠀

...Is my lifestyle conducive to regularly offering a variety of nutrient-dense foods to meet all their needs without milk?⠀

At the end of the day, it's all about getting the facts on everything and putting it in the context of YOUR life and your KIDDO’S DIET.

Happy Eating and Feeding,

As always, discuss any concerns with your pediatrician. This post is not meant to be a substitute for medical advice.


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