What is the best milk for babies? What about toddlers? When should you wean your little one? Is cow’s milk a necessity? Let Registered Dietitian, Josten, answer all of these questions so you can figure out what works best for your little one and your family.
Questions about milk for babies are common and everyone’s situation is different, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Obviously, if your baby is 1 or younger, breastmilk or formula is needed to meet the nutritional needs. But if your child is almost 1 year old – you may be wondering what is next.
Here in the United States, weaning at 12 months is the cultural norm. This is largely due to the recommendations of the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) which advise mothers to breastfeed until 12 months or older. Many mothers don’t even realize it is actually the recommendation of the World Health Organization to breastfeed until 2 years or more. For many cultures around the world, weaning at a much later age is the norm.
Breastmilk is still Best Beyond Age 1
Unfortunately, many pediatricians are not educated in breastfeeding or nutrition and give out the idea to mothers that breastmilk past the age of one is only for comfort. Science, as well as the nutritional composition of breastmilk, completely disproves this notion. Even when you’re baby hits 12 months old, breastmilk continues to be a powerhouse of nutrition and immune support for your little one.
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Immunity from Breastmilk
Some studies show that breastmilk actually leads to increases in immune factors like antibodies during the second year of life, meaning children may receive even more immune-boosting benefits from breastfeeding past 1.
Nutrition form Breastmilk
I’ve heard some mothers say that their pediatrician advised them breastmilk was like water after the age of one. Thankfully, this is simply not the case. Breastmilk does change to match your child’s needs as they age; however, it continues to contain a variety of nutrients including protein, fat, and vitamins during the second year of life.
Breastmilk is higher in fat than cow’s milk and the nutrients are very bioavailable for your baby and growing toddler. This makes it the best milk choice for babies and toddlers alike. Of course, breastfeeding is a very personal decision and sometimes does not work out for various reasons. Read on to learn about alternatives for your toddler.
According to this article, 16 oz of breastmilk in the 2nd year of life will provide 1/3 of your baby’s calorie requirements, 43% protein needs, and 36% of calcium. Not to mention it’s basically like giving your child a multivitamin as it will provide 3/4ths of a child’s vitamin A and folate and 94% of vitamin B12. As I discussed in my article about sugar for babies, the first two years of a child’s life are very important nutritionally.
Baby Feeding Timelines & Weaning
From 0-6 months, it is recommended to exclusively breastfeed. Whether doing breastmilk or formula, the current recommendation is to not serve food until 6 months. It is common for many babies to start eating solids at 4 months. However, because an infant’s GI system is still maturing, waiting until 6 months ensures their digestive system is ready to handle solids which reduces the risk of potential allergies and GI infections.
Sometime around 6 months and after baby meets all the signs of readiness it’s time to start solids! Be sure to talk to your pediatrician to decide when your baby is ready.
During this time, breastmilk (or formula) will continue to be the primary source of nutrition for your little one while they receive supplemental foods. The most important part is introducing them to a variety of textures and tastes. Many baby-led weaning experts will encourage you to nurse your baby prior to sitting them down to eat a meal as this can help reduce their frustration while learning to self-feed.
12 months – 2 years
During the second year of life, babies will often start eating more solids. If you choose to continue to breastfeed, you can try to space nursing sessions out before mealtimes to allow your baby to feel hungrier at meals. If you are still breastfeeding your baby several times a day, there is no need to offer an alternative milk product as breastmilk is the best milk for your 1-year-old.
However, if you are finished breastfeeding at 1, you will likely decide (along with your pediatrician) to wean to another type of milk.
Weaning to another milk
Many women feel ready to give up breastfeeding at one. Most 1-year-olds are not yet consuming enough food to be without milk, which is why cow’s milk is traditionally offered at age one. It is offered as an alternative to breastmilk (or formula.)
Choosing the Best Milk for Your Baby (or Toddler)
Is cow’s milk necessary?
No, but you do need to make sure your toddler’s nutrients are met. Cow’s milk is what has been traditionally used and recommended to help meet nutritional needs such as protein and calcium, but there are many ways to meet your toddler’s needs.
As I mentioned, breastmilk is the best milk for your 1-year-old; yes, even better than cow’s milk, but even after you have weaned your child from breastmilk you do not have to offer cow’s milk if your child consumes enough food and essential nutrients from other sources.
Whole Cow’s Milk
If you are offering cow’s milk to your 1-year-old, you want to make sure it is whole milk. Fat at this age is very important for brain and physical development. Now technically, after two you can serve low-fat milk, but for my family, we only ever buy whole milk. Most whole milk at the grocery store here in the US is fortified with vitamin D.
Grass-fed Milk Benefits
If your budget allows, research shows milk from grass-fed cows does have an improved nutritional profile with higher concentrations of Omega 3 and ELA (1, 2.) You can also purchase milk from local farms often sold at stores like Whole Foods/Earth Fare/Fresh Thyme after researching the farms to see if they do graze their cows when possible.
Organic milk offers some benefits as well if your budget allows it. The standards for organic milk encourage more grazing in the cattle and therefore more likely to have the benefits of high omega 3s and ensures we avoid routine use of antibiotics and hormones which may benefit a growing child.
According to the USDA, organic Milk Standards include the following:
- Pasture, where animals graze, must meet organic requirements.
- Animals must be able to access pasture throughout the entire grazing season for a minimum of 120 days. A minimum of 30% of their intake on average during pasture season should come from the pasture.
- Additional feed must be 100% organic.
- No hormones can be used. (While this practice is decreasing in conventional cattle as well, some studies still show many dairy products tested do contain hormones, as well as traces of pesticides.)
- Animals must be provided freedom of movement and the opportunity to exercise.
Nutritionally, goat milk is similar to cow’s milk. However, the structural components of goat milk are different and some say it’s a closer match to breastmilk than cow’s milk. For example, research shows the fat globules are smaller, and therefore many scientists claim they are easier to digest (1). In fact, goat milk does not undergo homogenization due to the size of the fat globules. Goat milk may also be more easily tolerated by some who do not tolerate A1 casein as it only contains A2 caseins. It will be interesting to see how research grows in the area of goat milk throughout the years.
Although goat’s milk is naturally low in vitamin D, popular brands of goat’s milk such as Meyenberg are fortified with vitamin D.
Plant Based Milk Alternatives
Many families are opting to avoid cow’s milk for personal preferences as well as allergies/intolerances. This is leading many moms to do their own research into the milk they choose for their babies. Milk alternatives have become increasingly popular over the past few years. In fact, last time I was at the grocery store I noticed there were more choices of milk alternatives than brands and varieties of cow’s milk. Many parents ask which milk alternatives would be an appropriate substitution.
Are milk alternatives suitable for growing toddlers?
Milk alternatives are mostly fortified with vitamins such as calcium and vitamin D. So it’s important to remember that these nutrients are not naturally occurring. While many are a good source, it is through fortification so the amount can vary depending on the brand and whether they did in fact fortify it. It is similar to giving your child a vitamin.
While milk alternatives can provide great taste and consistency for smoothies, overnight oats, and other recipes, it is important to remember that they are overall lower in fat than breastmilk or cow’s milk.
Fat is a vital nutrient for babies and toddlers alike. However, if a child is over the age of 1 they technically don’t need to obtain this through milk. Serving healthy high-fat foods can help your little one meet their nutritional needs if you do not serve milk at all or if you serve a milk alternative.
Buy Unsweetened Plant Based Milks for Babies & Toddlers
Plant-based milk often comes in a variety of flavors (vanilla, chocolate, plain) and they often come either sweetened or unsweetened. If you decide to serve your child plant-based milk, ensure you are buying a plain and unsweetened version.
Which milk alternative is best for my toddler?
If you choose to serve your little one a milk alternative, you can review the chart below to see how they stack up nutritionally. Once you choose one that will work for your family, you can work to adjust their diet accordingly. For example, a choice that has less fat such as almond milk could be served alongside a source of fat.
Almond milk is a popular milk alternative. While it can make a great choice to add to things like smoothies, many of the nutrients in popular brands of almond milk are from fortification. Other less processed brands do not have these nutrients. Additionally, it is low in fat, which is very important for babies and toddler’s growth as well as absorption of important fat soluble vitamins.
Takeaway: Fortified almond milk such as Silk brand is basically a vitamin. If you choose almond milk for the nutrients, serve it with a fat source.
Nutritionally, cashew milk is very similar to almond milk. Again, popular brands such as Silk fortify it with vitamins/nutrients.
Takeaway: Nutritionally, cashew milk is similar to almond milk in that common brands are fortified with nutrients/vitamins.
While coconut milk does have double the fat as almond milk, it is still lower in fat than breastmilk or cow milk. However, it is still a great alternative source of fat for your baby or toddler. As with almond and cashew milk, popular brands such as Silk often fortify coconut milk with vitamins/nutrients.
Takeaway: Still a little low in fat, but higher than almond milk.
Rice milk is an older option that is popular for baking and cooking due to it’s neutral flavor. However, as far as nutrients it does not have much to offer, especially to the growing toddler. If you buy unenriched, it contains no vitamin D and minimal calcium. However, buying enriched will get you these nutrients.
Takeaway: Does not provide fat to your growing toddler. Vitamins are found in the enriched version.
Ripple milk features pea protein and algal oil for DHA. Its fat content is higher than nut/oat milk due to the algal oil as well as sunflower oil. Again, vitamins are added to bring the nutrient content up for this beverage.
Hemp is a less common milk alternative, but it is out there. It is made of hulled hemp seeds and typically fortified with vitamins. Similar to coconut and ripple milk, the fat content is less than breastmilk and cow’s milk but higher than nut milk. It’s a good source of Omega 3s which is a bonus.
Oat milk is a more recent product on the market. Some oat milk brands such as Planet Oat fortify with vitamins. The fat and protein contents are low in Oatmilk so again, it would not make a suitable choice for a child that depends on milk for fat intake.
Takeaway: May contain vitamins depending on the brand. Is not a good source of fat or protein.
Soy milk is a popular alternative to cow’s milk as it is the recommendation of the AAP. However, it’s a common allergen as well. In fact, approximately half of those with a dairy allergy will also be allergic to soy. Therefore, your pediatrician may advise against soy if your child has a dairy allergy. The fat content is low when compared to whole cow’s milk (or breastmilk.) Although the AAP recommends fortified soy milk as a feasible alternative, some are concerned with the phytoestrogens in soy milk which can mimic estrogen. More research needs to be done to determine the effects of phytoestrogens on children. Because most soy is genetically modified in the US, if you choose soy milk you should purchase Organic if you want to avoid GMOs.
Making the Decision for Your Growing Baby
Obviously, many factors come into play when you start thinking about weaning your baby or serving milk.
A few things to consider include:
- When do you plan to wean your baby?
- Does your child eat a variety of foods? Do they eat a good amount for their age? Does your child have selective or picky eating tendencies that make it hard to meet nutritional needs?
- Other calcium sources you typically consume and offer to your children
Many cultures around the world do not serve milk to their children once they are weaned, but they still have adequate nutrition. Meeting with a Registered Dietitian can help you make this decision for your little one while still ensuring their nutritional needs are met!