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Baby Steps: Tips to Transition From Formula to Milk

Slowly introducing cow’s milk (or soy milk) can help your child make the change

Happy toddler holding sippy cup

Make the formula. Feed your cutie. Wash, rinse, repeat.

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For parents of babies who gulp down bottles of formula, you’ve been doing this routine several times a day (and night) for what seems like forever.

But the end is in sight. Your baby is finally old enough and ready to transition to cow’s milk or a milk alternative.

Here’s how to make it happen, explains pediatrician Radhai Prabhakaran, MD.

When to wean your baby off formula

The switcheroo from formula to milk typically comes after your child’s first birthday. Up until that point, growing babies need the vitamins and nutrients packed into formula or breast milk, says Dr. Prabhakaran.

But fortified formula becomes less essential as your kiddo starts eating solid foods. Fruits, vegetables, grains and meats begin filling their nutritional needs spoonful by spoonful.

Whether babies are ready to hop aboard the milk express depends on their taste for table food.

“Some babies settle into a mostly solid food diet early (between 9 and 12 months) because they like it and it agrees with them,” notes Dr. Prabhakaran. “If they’re eating a nutritionally balanced diet, then it’s OK to wean your baby off formula by age 1.”

Changing from formula to milk

Babies may not be able to talk, but they can express strong opinions — especially when it comes to eating. (Remember that shiver-and-gag reaction they gave a certain food? There’s your sign!)

Your little one’s initial judgment on milk will go a long way toward deciding how to work dairy into their diet, says Dr. Prabhakaran.

If your baby likes cow’s milk

An immediate love of dairy makes the process easier. So, if milk brings a big smile to your child’s face:

  1. Start offering a 2- to 4-ounce serving of milk for every two or three servings of formula.
  2. Over the next week or so, increase milk servings as you decrease formula servings.
  3. Stop giving formula once they’re drinking the milk with no issues.

If your baby seems to prefer formula

The transition to milk won’t be as simple if your baby seems to cling to formula as their No. 1 option. Try these steps to ease the transition:

  1. Make the formula as you usually do, but then add a bit of milk to the prepared formula. (Don’t just add cow’s milk to the formula powder.)
  2. Slowly increase the amount of milk in the mixture as your child adjusts to the taste. (In a 4-ounce bottle, for instance, maybe start with 3 ounces of formula and 1 ounce of milk.) Up the milk content if they eat as much as they typically do.
  3. Continue adding milk and reducing formula until the bottle is all milk.

Signs you need to slow the transition to milk

Ease off on making the change from formula to milk if your child starts to experience stuffiness or you see a dramatic change in their stools, advises Dr. Prabhakaran. These symptoms could be a sign of a potential dairy allergy.

Signs your baby may not be able to tolerate cow’s milk include:

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Talk to your baby’s pediatrician if those symptoms appear. If needed, your healthcare provider can recommend safe milk alternatives.

When to stay with formula

Your baby should continue with formula if they:

  • Aren’t gaining weight.
  • Haven’t established a balanced diet of solid foods.
  • Need to maintain a formula diet based on certain health conditions, including kidney problems, liver issues, certain metabolic conditions, food allergies or problems digesting food and absorbing nutrients.

“And if your doctor has already told you that your baby might need to go on a special diet, talk to them before weaning your baby off formula,” stresses Dr. Prabhakaran. “They can help you put a nutrition plan in place that will make the transition safer.”

What’s the best milk for a 1-year-old?

Whole milk is generally recommended for toddlers, who need the extra fat in the drink to boost growth and brain development. “The general rule is whole milk until they’re 2 years old unless there are specific circumstances,” says Dr. Prabhakaran.

Your doctor may recommend 2% milk instead if your baby:

  • Is heavy for their size.
  • Drinks more than the recommended amount of milk (16 to 24 ounces a day or 2 to 3 cups).
  • Is constipated.

Milk alternatives for toddlers

Fortified soy milk is considered the primary milk alternative that can meet a child’s nutritional needs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Choose an unsweetened variety to avoid excess sugar. Make sure it’s fortified with vitamin D and calcium.

And you can talk to your child’s healthcare provider about the milk alternatives you’re considering.

“There are so many choices and babies’ diets vary so much. It’s impossible to have a blanket rule for what’s OK,” says Dr. Prabhakaran. “Your baby’s doctor can help you find the best alternative to help your child with specific deficiencies and their overall nutrition.”

Double the change!

As long as you’re saying goodbye to formula, why not get rid of that baby bottle, too? Drinking from a bottle is typically a no-no after age 1. “Bottle-feeding can affect teeth growth and cause cavities,” says Dr. Prabhakaran.

So, look to transition to a sippy, straw or regular cup.

“If you’re feeling really adventurous, wean them off formula and the bottle at the same time,” she says.

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