Transitioning From Formula to Whole Milk

A baby drinking milk from a bottle

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Once formula-fed babies turn 1, they should switch from drinking formula to whole cow's milk (unless there are allergy concerns). The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) recommends that children ages 12 to 24 months drink whole milk rather than reduced-fat milk, as toddlers need the extra fat in their diets to support optimal brain development.

In specific cases, low-fat milk may be warranted if a child has a strong family history of heart disease. Each child will need to be assessed individually, as what they eat and drink as a whole, as well as what foods they enjoy and have access to, should be included in the decision. However, in most cases, whole cow's milk is the recommended option.

When to Transition From Formula to Milk

It may be tempting to switch your formula-fed baby to regular milk before age 1 for a few reasons, including cost savings and convenience. But formula is designed to mimic the nutritional components of breast milk and is the ideal food (after breast milk itself) for babies. Formula contains just the right balance of fats, protein, and other nutrients to support proper growth.

Cow's milk not only doesn't have the appropriate nutritional make-up for babies, but it contains certain proteins and a higher concentration of minerals that can be difficult for those under 12 months old to digest.

The composition of cow's milk is, however, well-suited to a toddler's digestion and dietary needs and should replace formula after their first birthday. This replacement does not have to happen all at once, but can be gradual.

You may see toddler formulas on store shelves. These products are more expensive than milk, but they are not any more nutritious and for the majority of kids they are unnecessary.

If your child has a limited diet and/or won’t drink milk, discuss this with their doctor to see if supplements are appropriate, or if they can get the nutrients they need from other foods, including other dairy products.

How to Make the Switch

To transition from formula to milk, either go cold turkey or do it gradually. One way to switch is to stop offering bottles and instead offer a cup of cow's milk with your baby's meals or snacks. Gradual methods include mixing milk and formula in the same cup or slowly replacing bottles with cups, one at a time.

Your child will likely give you strong signals about what is working for them (and not). Some children respond positively if their caregivers simply change all of their cups or bottles to whole milk once they reach 12 months old. This method typically works for kids who quickly adapt to change.

You may want to try this approach to see how your child responds. If it doesn't work, or if you think your child may respond better to a more gradual approach from the get-go, one of these strategies may help with the transition:

  • For a child who is a more cautious or limited eater: A slower transition usually works better. For example, you might replace one bottle of formula with a cup of whole milk every few days or weeks. The first bottle in the morning and the last bottle of the day can be harder for children to give up, so you might consider switching those out last, once your baby is drinking milk throughout the day.
  • If your baby refuses plain milk: You might start mixing formula and milk together. At first, just add a little milk (for instance, one ounce), so that your baby is mostly drinking formula. Every few days, add more milk and less formula in the bottles so that your child slowly gets used to the taste. Eventually, you can transition to just having milk in the bottles or cups and no formula at all.

It can help to serve the milk at the same temperature that your child is used to for formula. However, if you plan to warm milk, never do so in a microwave. This can create areas of intense heat that can burn your child.

Making the transition from formula to milk requires you to make some changes in how you think about feeding your child as well. Two important points to keep in mind:

  • Unlike formula and breast milk in the first year, parents should think of milk as a beverage, not a meal. Children ages 12 to 24 months should be drinking 16 to 24 ounces of whole milk a day. A good share of their nutrition should come from solid foods in the toddler years.
  • As a child eats more solid food, especially if this includes dairy, some of the milk can be replaced with water. (Juice and sweetened or non-nutritive beverages are not recommended.) Your pediatrician can offer guidance on adjusting the ounces/day goal over time.

If Your Baby Has a Milk Allergy

If your baby has a milk protein allergy or intolerance, cow's milk may not be a good choice for them. Instead, soy milk can be a good alternative, as it is close to cow's milk in terms of nutrition. In this case, you can also consider a toddler formula specially designed for children with milk allergies.

Consult with your pediatrician to help choose a milk substitute that is both allergy-safe and offers your child proper nutrition.

If your child has not yet been diagnosed with an allergy, but you suspect one, it's important to get them tested to confirm it or determine if something else might be going on. Know, too, that kids may outgrow or develop new allergies over time.

While some parents might simply prefer to use soy milk, almond milk, or other milk alternatives instead of cow's milk, these products typically are lower in the fat and protein little kids need. They should only be used as substitutes when needed and under the oversight of a healthcare professional or dietitian.

When to Switch From Bottles to Cups

The AAP recommends introducing drinking from cups at around 6 months, so many toddlers are already used to using them (either alone or in combination with bottles) when it comes time to transition to regular milk.

If your baby is still only using bottles, you might consider making the switch to whole milk and cups or sippy cups at the same time. Again here, whether or not this is a good idea depends on your child.

If they roll with changes and enjoy a variety of foods, doing this may work just fine. If you think making both changes at once will be stressful for your child, change to milk first and then gradually transition to cups later. Often, it can be fun for kids to practice with small open cups, whether they contain water or milk.

A Word From Verywell

If you switch your baby to cow's milk and they refuse it, give it time as you try these suggestions. Consult their pediatrician if you are worried about their nutritional intake. If needed, you can accommodate a temporary dip in milk-drinking by adding other sources of calcium, like yogurt and cheese, into their diet.

Avoid trying to force them to drink milk. If it turns into a power struggle, they will likely be even more resistant to drinking milk.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Riley LK, Rupert J, Boucher O. Nutrition in toddlers. Am Fam Physician. 2018;98(4):227-233.

  2. Muth N. Recommended drinks for young children ages 0-5. American Academy of Pediatrics.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.