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How much milk should a one year old drink?

Shortly after his first birthday, my son (AKA Child Genius) hilariously made a connection between mama’s milk and milk from the fridge. He’d point to my boobs and say ‘boob’, then point to the carton of milk and say ‘boob’. Little did he know he was about to get a whole lot more familiar with this mystical ‘fridge boob’.

After 12 months of age it’s safe for children to start drinking cow’s milk in place of formula or breastmilk. It’s a great addition to the toddler diet because it’s full of nutrients to support their growth and development. But while dairy is a vital ingredient for healthy kids, it shouldn’t be introduced too early or given in excess. 

When to introduce milk to a baby’s diet

So when can babies start drinking milk (‘fridge boob’)? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends introducing cow’s milk no earlier than one year old. Some people consider this milestone to signal when they technically become a ‘toddler’ – but that call is entirely up to you.

Why can’t babies have milk?

Babies’ digestive systems aren’t developed enough to process cow’s milk protein and breastmilk is much easier on their little tum tums. However, it’s safe to introduce dairy in other forms such as yogurt or cheese when your child starts eating solids after six months of age. And you don’t need to avoid products that contain milk – some formulas, for example, contain cow’s milk. 

When it comes to giving your child healthy drinks, experts suggest sticking to cool, boiled water before they’re 12 months old.

Benefits of drinking milk

Many of us know that milk contains calcium and vitamins that contribute to strong teeth and bones, making it a vital part of a healthy diet (it’s in the food pyramid and everything). More specifically, it contains nutritional goodies like:

Milk consumption also boosts the body’s intake of vitamins A, B1, B2 and B12, phosphorus, selenium, magnesium and zinc. What a magical beverage!

But before you start bathing in the stuff, note that it needs to be consumed in appropriate amounts to be beneficial for your little one.

Recommended milk intake for children

According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans you should aim for the following:

  • 0–12 months – No milk. (After 6 months, it can be introduced in other foods.)
  • 12–24 months – Up to two cups, 14-16 ounces per day (415-470ml).
  • 2–8 years – Two to 2.5 cups, 16-20 ounces per day (470ml-590ml).

Can they drink TOO much milk?

Yes! It’s possible for toddlers to drink more milk than they should, and this can cause some nasty side effects like:

Constipation – While milk can be filling, it doesn’t contain fiber to assist with healthy bowel movements. So if toddlers fill up on milk at the expense of other solid food, they can get blocked up and uncomfortable, which isn’t fun for anyone. Particularly when you’re working on potty training.

Milk anemia – Too much milk is shown to cause iron deficiency in kids, which can impact the development of their mental and physical skills.

Unhealthy eating habits – While milk contains plenty of nutrition, it doesn’t have everything a child needs for development. So if they fill up on it and don’t get enough of other foods, they could have a poor overall diet. Or if they drink too much milk AND eat plenty of solids, they’re at risk of overeating which could lead to weight gain.

Picky eating – If your child won’t eat the meals you offer, giving them more milk isn’t a great solution. Picky eaters can learn to rely on milk as a way to stay full. Introducing a more strict feeding schedule with set times for meals and snacks, and only offering small milk drinks with meals, can help encourage them to eat a variety of food.

What if they don’t drink enough?

Perhaps your toddler doesn’t like milk or just can’t seem to manage the daily recommended drinks. The good news is that cheese and yogurt also count towards their two cups of milk per day. You can also get some into your child’s diet by offering it with cereal or porridge, or making milk-based soups, gravies or sauces to go with meals.

Not drinking milk isn’t necessarily a concern if your child is still growing and developing normally. But if you’re worried, check in with your pediatrician. In some cases they may advise you to give your toddler a vitamin D supplement.

What’s the best milk for toddlers?

There’s a bit of contention around whether toddlers should be drinking whole milk or low fat milk. Some sources suggest transitioning to low fat options after the age of two, but many believe that normal, full fat is the best type of milk for all kids, unless they’re dealing with weight issues.

If you’re considering specially marketed ‘toddler milks’ or ‘toddler formula’, guidelines suggest that these don’t add much nutritionally and aren’t necessary. (They’ll try and get you with their catchy TV commercial jingles though!)

So WTF do you do about milk if your family is vegan or your child has a milk allergy? Great question.

Best cow’s milk alternative

Fortified, unsweetened soy milk is a good alternative to cow’s milk because it has a similar nutrient composition. Other non-dairy milks (almond, oat, rice, coconut etc.) aren’t great as an alternative to milk as they don’t contain much protein and often aren’t fortified with vitamin D.

You can also offer your toddler the nutrients found in cow’s milk through certain other foods, or chat to your doctor about dietary supplements.

How to offer cow’s milk

If your baby is still drinking from a bottle, you can offer them cow’s milk in that. A sippy cup can be a good first step towards transitioning them away from bottles, and before you let them handle a cup of their own (messy) you could upgrade to a strawed cup. This saves them (and more likely you) from crying over spilled milk.

How to introduce milk to baby

If your little one isn’t taking to cow’s milk too enthusiastically, here’s a hack:

Add a small amount to their normal bottle feed, and slowly increase the ratio of milk to breastmilk or formula until they’re eventually drinking the cow’s milk on its own. Sneaky!

Should I keep breastfeeding?

Just because your toddler is now drinking cow’s milk doesn’t mean you need to stop breastfeeding. If you’re happy to keep going with it, you do you! 

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until children are two years old, but they don’t technically need breastfeeds once they’ve started getting nutrition from food and drinks.

When should I wean?

This is completely your call! You may have already stopped breastfeeding before 12 months, or started supplementing with formula feeds, or perhaps you’re going strong and don’t want to stop. 

For reference, around 35.3% of women are still breastfeeding by 12 months. Some choose to stop then, while others may continue for the next few months or years. Take your time and wean your baby or toddler off breastfeeding when you feel ready.

When should I be transitioning from formula to milk?

The 12-month mark is a good time to start transitioning from formula to cow’s milk. As mentioned above, you can start by adding a bit of milk to your baby’s normal bottle feed, then slowly increase the ratio of milk until they’re not taking formula anymore at all.

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