Cow's milk can be introduced as a drink when your baby reaches his first birthday, but not before. Here's why, and how to do it
When your baby reaches 12 months old, you can give him whole cow’s milk as a drink. Before this age it isn't suitable because it contains too much salt and not enough iron, so stick to breast milk or formula. Cow's milk can, however, be used in cooking or on cereal from age six months.
Full-fat cow’s milk contains lots of essential nutrients including protein, calcium, magnesium and vitamins B12 and B2, as well as vitamins A and D. These vitamins come from the fat in milk. Semi-skimmed milk isn’t suitable as a drink until two years of age, as it’s too low in calories and nutrients, and skimmed milk shouldn’t be given before the age of five.
By age one, solid foods will have replaced milk as your baby's main source of nutrition. But he will still need around 350ml (12 oz) a day to provide enough calcium, as well as extra calories.
If your child isn't keen on milk, you can still boost calcium intake by offering other dairy products like yoghurt and cheese. You can also make sure there’s plenty of milk in dishes that include white sauces, such as lasagne and cauliflower cheese.
If your baby is on formula and rejects the taste of cow's milk, try diluting the formula with a little cow's milk to begin with. Then, over a few weeks, gradually increase the amount of milk and reduce the amount of formula.
Experts warn against giving excessive amounts of milk, as this can hinder iron absorption. To avoid your toddler filling up on milk rather than solids, it’s best to offer it after a meal or with a morning or afternoon snack, rather than with or just before a meal.
If you and your toddler are still happy breastfeeding, there’s no reason to stop. Neither is there any reason to continue to give your child formula, although special follow-on formulas or ‘toddler milks’ are available which are tailored to toddlers’ nutritional needs – reassuring if you have a fussy eater, or are concerned about diet. Your health visitor can give more information about when this might be recommended.
Whatever type of milk you give him, make sure you’re offering it from a cup rather than a bottle. Bottle-feeding allows milk to pool around your baby’s teeth, which can cause cavities, so aim to switch to a trainer cup or a proper open cup at around 12 months.
By 12 months, most toddlers have cut down on their milk intake. Your little one is unlikely to still need regular milk feeds during the day, but may still enjoy milk on waking or with breakfast, and at bedtime.
Dropping a bedtime milk feed can take a bit of work, as it’s often part of a sleep routine. Make sure you have a good, calming bedtime routine in place if you want to drop it, offering a cup of milk or a milky supper like porridge instead of a bottle or breastfeed.
Some children are allergic to dairy and can't drink cow's milk. Most formula is based on cow’s milk and unsuitable for babies with a cow’s milk intolerance or allergy.
Under the age of 1 year, the most suitable formula is a hypoallergenic formula which will be available on prescription. Calcium-enriched oat or coconut milk can be used as an alternative to cow's milk for babies over 1 year, however, this should be done in consultation with your GP or dietitian.
If you think your child has an allergy or have any concerns about milk intake, talk to your health visitor or doctor.