If you’re still breastfeeding into toddlerhood, no. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until 2 years old. After 2, you can wean to water and table foods or to any kind of milk per your family’s choice. If you’ve decided to wean between 1-2 years, yes and no. Cow’s milk provides a convenient source of a lot of nutrients, including calcium, protein, potassium and vitamin D that are important for building bone and brain development. But if your toddler won’t drink it, has an allergy or intolerance, or your family follows a vegan lifestyle, a well-planned diet can provide these nutrients too. According to the USDA, children ages 2-3 need two servings of dairy per day (milk, yogurt, cheese, or calcium-fortified non-dairy beverage), children age 4-8 need two and a half, and kids 9+ need three. Can you use a milk alternative such as soy, almond or oat? Yes, but they’re not one-for-one swaps. For instance, almond and rice milk have only 1 gram of protein per serving, compared to 8 grams in cow’s.
When choosing a non-dairy milk, make sure it’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Homemade versions won’t have this fortification. Shake milk substitutes well before serving, the calcium settles on the bottom. Look for varieties labeled “unsweetened” as many milk alternatives contain lots of added sugar! If you’re choosing not to offer your toddler cow’s milk, make sure they’re getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, grains and protein to get them the vitamins, minerals, fats and protein they need for growth. When in doubt, discuss nutrition with a pediatric dietician
Milk is a very convenient source of calcium, but not essential. It is recommended that a 1-3 year old child have 700mg (2-3 servings) of calcium per day. Eating a diet rich in beans, tofu, spinach, kale, broccoli, kiwi, figs, brown rice, oatmeal and certain fish such as salmon can give your child just as much calcium as drinking milk. No one ever “has” to drink milk. Human milk contains less calcium than cow’s milk, but the calcium in human milk has over twice the bioavailability of the calcium in cow’s milk. Increasing your calcium intake does not increase the calcium in your milk – your milk always has the right amount of calcium for your baby. Getting adequate calcium in your diet is recommended because if you’re not getting enough, your body will take calcium from your bones to provide to your baby, making you more prone to bone fractures. However as soon as you wean, your body regains bone mass and your bones will actually be stronger than before.
Human milk averages 5.9-10.1 mg/oz calcium. 67% of this calcium is absorbed by the body.
Whole milk contains 36.4 mg/oz calcium. 25-30% of cow’s milk is absorbed by the body.
Infant formulas contain 15.6 mg/oz calcium; toddler formulas contain 24-27 mg/oz calcium. Extra calcium is added to infant formulas because of the lower bioavailability of the calcium from formulas as compared to human milk (they aim for baby to absorb the same amount of calcium as would be absorbed from breastmilk).
Toddler formulas have come on the market in recent years touting that they’re great nutrition for the 12+ month group. In reality, it’s all clever marketing. If you supplement baby with formula, there’s no need to switch to a toddler formula at 12+ months. In the second year of life, growth slows. Your toddler doesn’t gain weight or length as quickly as they did right after birth.
If you’re still breastfeeding, your milk adjusts to this based on how toddler nurses; how the breast is emptied tells your body what kind of milk to make. When breast milk is the primary diet, like in the first 6 months, your milk is made for growth and immunity. When your toddler is taking lots of table foods and nursing, your milk is made for development and immunity.
At 1 you don’t need a fancy toddler formula or cow’s milk. If you’re exclusively formula feeding, switching to whole cow’s milk is fine. While cow’s milk is a convenient source of calcium, protein, fats, and vitamin D, there’s no need to switch to that, either. As long as your child takes a wide variety in their diet and has a good source of calcium (yogurt, cheese, dark leafy greens like spinach, fortified cereals or juice, soybeans, etc), just choose what you offer your child wisely. If you’re still breastfeeding, know your child is getting good nutrition from your milk suited to their growing needs. If you’re concerned about your toddlers diet or they don’t eat a wide variety, consult your pediatrician or a pediatric nutritionist for advice and help.