Switching your baby’s regular milk to cow’s milk can feel like a big change for your family. Many parents ask me about both when and how to transition their baby from formula to cow’s milk – and many have concerns about how their baby will take to it. So, my intention in this article is to give you the knowledge and reassurance you need to make this next step with confidence.
Milk is such a big topic when it comes to feeding babies and I have quite a few different resources which may also help. To see how much milk your baby needs at different stages, see my milk recommendations blog for babies and toddlers, and my factsheet all about baby’s milk gives an in-depth guide to the milk journey in the first two years.
When should my baby transition from formula to cow’s milk?
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of your child’s life. For those who are not breastfeeding, infant formulas are recommended instead for the first 6 months. Although these formulas are based on cow’s milk, the milk is treated first to make it suitable for babies.
For standard cow’s milk, the current recommendation is not to offer this to infants as a main drink until a baby reaches at least 12 months of age.
However, before this, it is fine to offer full-fat cow’s milk and other dairy products as an ingredient in baby’s foods from 6 months of age. For example, milk can be added to cereals, in cooking, or natural yogurt or cheese can be given with meals.
Why is cow’s milk not suitable as a drink for babies under 12 months?
Cow’s milk does not contain the balance of nutrients that young infants and babies require in the first year of life. For example, cow’s milk does not contain enough iron, vitamin E or essential fatty acids for a young baby. It may also be too high in protein, sodium and potassium too.
Once a formula fed baby gets to 12 months of age they can quite safely switch onto full fat cow’s milk, as long as their diet is well balanced at this stage. It’s important to offer full fat cow’s milk as this has more vitamin A than semi skimmed milk. Once your little one gets to 2 years of age, you can switch to semi-skimmed milk if it is more convenient for the rest of the family and if you feel your little one is eating a well-balanced diet.
Should I move to “follow on” formula or “growing up” milk?
The simple answer is no, you don’t need to. You can offer either follow-on formula or growing up milk if you choose to, but first infant milk provides all the nutrients your baby needs until 1 year of age, alongside a balanced diet from around 6 months.
“Follow-on” formula can be given to babies from 6 months (it should not be offered before this age), but research doesn’t show any benefit for babies given follow-on formula when compared with those given first infant formula.
“Growing up” milks are marketed as an alternative to whole cow’s milk for toddlers from 1 year of age, as they contain added nutrients, such as vitamins A & D and iron. Similar to follow-on formula, there’s no research to suggest these milks offer an additional benefit to little ones but they are suitable from 1 year if you choose to offer them.
If you’re planning to offer either follow-on formula or growing up milk, it’s advised to check with a health visitor first.
Regardless of whether your child is having these types of milk, it’s still recommended that babies should supplement with vitamins A, C & D from once they are having less than 500ml of formula per day. Check my blog on supplements for babies and children for more on these recommendations.
How should I move from formula to cow’s milk?
As with many things when it comes to feeding babies, there’s no right or wrong way to transition to cow’s milk. If you want to, and your little one is happy with it, you can just switch their formula feeds to cow’s milk from one day to the next. You may find that offering the cow’s milk in their usual bottle will help, and once they’re more familiar with it, you can start offering it in a cup (for more on this, check my blog on moving from a bottle to a cup).
If you find that your little one isn’t taking to cow’s milk so well, you may want to try mixing cow’s milk together with their regular formula milk. There is mixed advice around preparing formula in this way, but I consulted with specialists in this area who advised that, providing the formula is prepared safely according to the manufacturer’s guidelines, you can add some cow’s milk to it. You can start with around 80% formula and 20% cow’s milk and gradually increase the proportion of cow’s milk until they’re only having cow’s milk.
Will there be any side effects from switching to cow’s milk?
If you’ve already introduced cow’s milk into your little one’s diet, without any signs of allergy then it’s unlikely that you’ll notice any side effects when switching from formula to cow’s milk. Even if you haven’t, regular infant formula is made with modified cow’s milk and so if your baby has been drinking formula milk with no problems, the risk of developing an allergy to dairy when introduced into the diet is relatively low. You can read more in my blog on introducing allergens when weaning.
You may notice changes to your baby’s poo if increasing the amount of cow’s milk they have. If you have any concerns, always speak to a healthcare professional for advice.
Can I switch to a plant-based milk instead?
For those babies who follow a plant-based diet or have an allergy to cow’s milk, another question that comes up is whether there are any suitable plant-based alternatives.
Whilst NHS recommendations are that fortified plant-based milks can be offered as a drink to babies over 1 year of age, alongside a balanced diet, not all plant-based options provide a suitable direct replacement for cow’s milk. I’ve written a really detailed blog all about plant-based milks for infants and toddlers as well as comparing some of the most popular plant-based milk options.
When it comes to offering plant-based milks as a main drink, if your baby has a well-balanced diet and doesn’t have allergies, it may be appropriate to offer these milks before the age of 2, but it’s ideal to speak to a healthcare professional if you’re planning to do this.
To sum up…
I hope you’ve found this article helpful and feel well-equipped to make the transition from formula to cow’s milk once your little one turns 1. Remember there is no perfect way to switch to cow’s milk, and it’s likely you and your little one will soon work out what’s best for your family.
For more information on how your child’s milk intakes change after 12 months, including some troubleshooting for potential issues, see my blog Milk After One. You can also find me regularly posting about infant feeding on my Instagram.