What Milk, When?
Parents ask me time and time again about baby’s milk from birth to weaning and beyond – so I hope this blog post is really useful.
While we talk about all of the foods and nutrients that are important for our little ones, milk is something that lots of us find confusing and unclear how it fits into the diet as a whole. It’s not always easy to know what sort of milk is needed, or suitable and what the recommendations are at each stage during the early years. In this blog, I’ll take you through the first 0-3 years and explain what type of milk is recommended for your child. I’ve also included some tables as a quick reference guide as to what you can offer, and when!
For new-born babies, the WHO advice is to solely breastfeed 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.
While breastfeeding isn’t straightforward or accessible for everyone, there are a number of benefits to it for both mum and baby. I’ve written about this in more detail in my blog What are the benefits of breastfeeding? In summary: breastfeeding provides babies with all of the vital nutrition and hydration they need and will adapt to their changing requirements, it helps protect against infection and to build a healthy immune system and it is also a cheap, convenient way for mothers to feed their babies wherever and whenever they need to.
Infant Formula Milk
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. The NHS website has a really informative breakdown of all of the different types of formula that you might choose to offer and when you need to consider medical supervision.
If you and your baby are vegan or vegetarian, make sure to get professional medical advice on what milk to feed your baby if breastfeeding is not available for you. Currently, there are no suitable vegan infant formulas available in the UK. Even those that are not from animal source contain an animal source of Vitamin D, so if you are not able to breastfeed, it is really important to seek professional support.
According to NHS guidelines, breast milk, or infant formula should be a baby’s main drink during the first year of life. Cow’s milk and other substitutes should not be introduced as a main drink until after 1 year.
At around 6 months you’ll start to introduce more foods into your baby’s diet, and so naturally the amount of milk they will want and need will gradually begin to decrease.
If you’re breastfeeding, your baby will naturally adapt how much they feed according to the other food they have eaten throughout the day. For formula fed babies, NHS guidelines suggest they may need around 600ml per day between 7-9 months and this will drop down to around 400ml between 10-12 months. Please remember this is just a guide.
You may start offering cow’s milk or other alternatives by using them in cooking, but it shouldn’t be offered as a main drink to replace either breast or formula milk.
Note: Some formula companies offer “follow-on” formula to be offered to infants after 6 months. While these are safe to use for babies after 6 months, current research shows no benefit to babies being fed these instead of continuing with regular infant formula.
From 1 year on, your child will start to eat larger, more regular meals and get most of their nutrition from foods other than milk. The WHO does recommend that babies continue to be breast fed up to 2 years, and beyond, but your baby will begin to need less breast milk as they eat a wider variety of foods. After 12 months, your baby won’t necessarily need formula milk anymore. Your little one can now start to drink cow’s milk and other alternatives as a more regular drink.
Between the ages of 1-3, it is recommended that children consume around 350-400mls of milk or 3 servings of dairy foods daily. But, if your child is consuming a lot of dairy at meals throughout the day, you may need to offer less milk. Below is a brief roundup of the main types of milk that might be offered at this stage.
- For children over one, choose full-fat or semi-skimmed cow’s milk. Skimmed doesn’t have the same nutrient profile in terms of vitamins and minerals and also has less energy. For growing children, it’s important that they get enough energy from the foods we offer and so skimmed is not an appropriate option. Note that advice has changed since autumn 2023 so that both semi-skimmed and whole milk are now recommended (formerly only whole milk was). Lower-fat milks, such as skimmed and 1% milk, can be used in cooking from one year of age too.
Goat’s / Sheep’s Milk
- Similar to cow’s milk, these shouldn’t be offered as a main drink until after 12 months. Their nutrient profiles are similar to cow’s milk so after 12 months, as long as they’re pasteurised, they’re fine to offer. While some people may choose to give goat’s or sheep’s milk as an alternative to cow’s milk for allergenic reasons, they are generally considered equivalent in allergenicity and safety.
Soya Drinks & Other Milk Alternatives
- As part of a healthy, balanced diet, plant-based milks including soya, oat, almond and other nut milks can be offered or used in cooking. However, it’s worth noting that they are not nutritionally comparable to cow’s milk and not all brands fortify with the same nutrients so they shouldn’t be used as a direct replacement for cow’s milk in your child’s diet. See my blog for more detailed breakdown of plant-based milks for children.
Note: Rice milk should not be offered to children under five because of the possible arsenic content.
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. As noted above, around 350 – 400ml of milk or 3 daily servings of dairy foods are advised between the ages of 1-3, so you can adjust how much milk you give them based on their diet throughout the week. If you don’t include dairy in your child’s diet, you may want to consider how you replace any nutrients they might be missing out on. My blog on vegetarian diets for children might be a helpful place to start!
A summary of milk recommendations for young children
To help put all of this information into a slightly more condensed version, I’ve created the tables below as a quick-look guide to what milks to offer when and an overview of the different types of milk you might offer throughout your child’s early life.
Table 1: What milk, when?
|What Milk, When?!
|Breast milk (on demand) morning and night or infant formula
|On demand for BF or ~150-200ml FM per kilo of bodyweight per day
|Primarily breast milk or infant formula, alongside complementary foods
|7-9 months: ~600ml per day 10-12 months: ~400ml per day
|Breast milk, dairy milk (cow, goat, sheep) or fortified plant-based alternative, alongside increasing complementary foods. If offering a milk alternative, seek advice as these are lower in energy.
|For cow’s milk or other animal milk, roughly 350-400ml per day is suitable
|Cow’s milk or alternative alongside balanced diet
|350-400ml per day OR 3 portions of dairy
Table 2 Breakdown of different milks:
|Type of Milk
|When is it Suitable?
|Things to consider
|Recommended as only drink until 6months; WHO recommends up to 2 years & beyond
|Nutritionally complete – offers all baby’s requirements, including hydration Contains antibodies and helps to build immune function Easily absorbed and digested Reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer for mum
|Not possible for everyone Can be painful / isolating
|Breastfeeding is not suitable or not chosen
|Offers all of the nutrients that a baby needs May be more convenient for working mums
|Doesn’t carry the same health benefits as breast milk
|Can be added to cooking / solid foods from 6 months Can be given as a main drink from 1 year Whole or semi-skimmed milk can be offered ( as per new guidance Aug 2023)
|Good source of calcium Good source of energy, protein and vitamins and minerals including vitamin D and iodine
|Cow’s milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance Vegan diets
|Sheep or Goat’s Milk
|From 12 months – not advised before this as they don’t contain sufficient iron
|Nutritionally similar to cow’s milk – good source of calcium and protein
|Ensure they’re pasteurized
|Soya or other alternative milks
|From 12 months, offered as part of an overall, balanced and healthy diet Offer unsweetened, calcium-fortified versions
|Suitable for vegan children or those with an intolerance to dairy
|Not all brands fortify with nutrients such as iodine Not suitable nutritionally as a complete replacement for cow’s milk
|Not suitable for children under 5 due to arsenic content