For many parents, feeding babies seems simple compared to deciding what to offer their one year-old.
We know that infants up until age one year need to drink either breast milk or infant formula. This nutrition is vital for their growth and development. And, by the time they’re 12 months old, they probably have a good diet of solid foods too.
However, starting at age one, many families ask what drink comes next. Conventional advice includes introducing whole cow’s milk after age one. It’s a great source of calcium, vitamin D, protein, and fat. But, cow’s milk may not be the right fit for every one year-old. Families ask if they have to give their one year-old cow’s milk. Or, they may ask if it’s okay to use a plant-based milk like soy milk or almond milk instead of cow’s milk. Other families ask about toddler “formulas.” There are so many options for one year-olds!
The good news is that one year-olds do not need to drink cow’s milk as long as they can get enough of the key nutrients (including calcium, vitamin D, protein, and fat) from the rest of their diet. As far as drinks go, water is perfectly adequate.
Whole Cow’s Milk as a Recommendation for One Year-Olds
Where does the recommendation come from? Well, first let’s think about infant nutrition. Breast milk is considered the standard nutrition for the first 6 months of life or so. For babies who do not drink breast milk, formula is an excellent option that has been carefully made and regulated to also meet a baby’s needs.
After age one, breast milk can still provide great nutrition. If a family wants to continue breastfeeding their toddler, that should be supported.
However, after age one, babies (toddlers!) no longer require the specific combination of nutrients found in infant formula. They can get their nutrition from regular foods that the rest of their family eats. Part of that nutrition includes protein, fat, calcium, and vitamin D. One really simlpe way to offer these nutrients? Whole cow’s milk that has been fortified with vitamin D. It’s an easy and convenient option. (Even so, it should be limited to about 16 ounces a day to prevent issues with anemia and constipation).
But cow’s milk is not the only option for one year-olds.
Whether it’s family preference, toddler preference, or food restrictions, many toddlers don’t drink cow’s milk. It’s okay! As long as they stay hydrated with water, they can get those key nutrients from other foods. (As a reminder, most one year-olds aren’t lactose intolerant. That usually shows up later).
For example, foods that include calcium are other dairy products like yogurt and cheese. (I usually suggest the plain yogurt to avoid added sugar). Green leafy vegetables, tofu, nuts (like almonds), and sardines all are great sources of calcium too.
As I discussed in this post, sometimes it’s challenging to get enough vitamin D without a supplement. So, vitamin D drops are a reasonable option for 1 year-olds not drinking cow’s milk. Your child’s pediatrician can give specific recommendations based on your child’s individual situation.
Protein and Fat
Again, for families that do eat dairy, protein and fat can come from other full-fat dairy products, like Greek yogurt or cheese. Meat, nut butters, fish, and eggs are all great sources as well. (Read here for meat-free ways for toddlers to get protein and fat).
What about plant-based milks for one year-olds?
Almond milk. Soy milk. Oat milk. Pea milk (Ripple is a common brand). There are plenty of drink options for those wanting to avoid cow’s milk. The question becomes: which ones are right for toddlers?
Generally speaking, most are fine for toddlers to taste here and there. And, they’re probably fine to mix with other foods like cereal. It’s just a matter of whether families want to count on them for actual nutrition.
Let me start by saying that they vary a lot! I encourage parents to look at the nutrition labels when making decisions. Some have surprisingly low levels of calcium, so would not be great sources for that. Most are also lower in fat. (Toddlers need fat especially for brain development). Also, many have other added ingredients.
So, a few things to think about when looking at nutrition labels of plant-based drinks:
- Is there added sugar? (Toddlers need zero added sugar)
- Is it fortified with calcium or vitamin D? (Either is fine, but parents just need to adjust the rest of their toddler’s diet accordingly)
- What else is it fortified with that may be helpful? (For example, the Ripple pea milk has vitamin B12 which could be helpful for those avoiding all animal products)
In other words, these plant-based milks are fine for many toddlers, but they don’t necessarily have the same nutrition as cow’s milk. The rest of a one-year-old’s diet matters too.
What about toddler formulas?
For most kids, toddler formulas are not needed. At all. They don’t have anything that kids cannot get from other food and drink. And, they’re expensive. Many also have added ingredients that many parents prefer to avoid (like the added sugar or corn syrup).
For some kids who have very specific dietary restrictions or specific medical conditions, certain formulas are needed. They’re life-saving and essential. But, if a child is physically able to eat a regular diet, they probably don’t need the very-well-marketed toddler formulas.
Summary: One year-Olds do not need cow’s milk in order to have a complete and balanced diet.
Parenting a toddler is challenging already. Choosing a drink doesn’t have to be one of those challenges. With a varied diet including enough vitamin D, calcium, protein, and fat, water is enough.
This is for information only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Full disclaimer here.
Maya M. Mahmood, D.O., FAAP is a board-certified pediatrician and mom. She is passionate about parents having evidence-based information to help their families be healthier.