A  question I recently got from one of my online seminar participants: “Hi Natalia- hope you are well! I listened to the feeding bytes webcast on 9-18-month-old eating last week- very helpful! E just turned one and we will start tomorrow on the transition to milk from formula. My question is on milk and snacks: when do we start offering real food snacks too? Should we add solid snacks to the existing schedule or replace the milk and formula? “

Water, breastmilk and cow’s milk are primary drinks for most kids 12 months and older. Unless your child has allergies or has special nutritional needs, there is no need to continue buying expensive formula. But it is important to observe the tricky balance of milk and solids in your toddler’s diet.

Toddlers need only about 16 oz of milk or 2 servings of dairy daily – at least a whole serving less than the generous 32-24 oz of formula or breastmilk they were enjoying before 12 months of age. Cheese and yogurt are also dairy foods so if a toddler is eating these daily, he may need even less milk. One serving of dairy is 8oz of milk or yogurt or 1.5 oz of cheese.

And since milk is an easy-to-like food that tastes great, comes in a familiar receptacle (most often a bottle) and does not require learning any additional skills to consume, many toddlers I know would prefer it to eating solid foods. Here is when the balance between milk and solids may start tipping off.

At the same time, too much milk in toddlers’ diets has been associated with a lower dietary variety and even higher risk for iron deficiency as milk displaces other nutritious foods from the diet and too much calcium from milk interferes with iron absorption. With the tummy full of milk, toddlers may be less interested in exploring different textures and flavors of solid foods. Did you know that one 8oz bottle of milk contains the same number of calories as 2 eggs? So if your toddler drinks four 8oz bottles a day, he will have very little appetite for other nutritious foods and feel less adventurous at mealtimes.

How to balance milk and solids in a toddler's diet

How to balance milk and solids in your toddler’s diet?

Step number one: Establish a structure in meals and snacks so that your toddler eats at the same time every day, every 2.5 to 3 hours. Since milk is so filling it is also considered food so it is best served at meals and snacks, preferably at a table. Walking around between meals and snacks with a bottle of milk is considered grazing and is an enemy of good eating habits.

Step number two: Replace snacking on a bottle with milk or breast with a scheduled solid snack. At 12 months, most kids are ready for 3 solid meals and 2 solid snacks per day. In fact, experts recommend switching from breast milk/formula snacks to solid snacks even earlier, at around 9 months, when many babies become more interested in solid foods and their consumption of milk and formula goes down.

See my mega list of nutritious snack ideas

Step number three: Switch from a bottle to a sippy cup and then an open cup. You may want to start the switch with the morning bottle and gradually work your way to the bedtime bottle, which typically is the hardest to give up for most toddlers. Many toddlers start drinking less milk from a sippy cup or an open cup because it is a less favorite way of drinking! The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends phasing out bottles by 12-24 months using sippy cups only as a transitional tool while toddlers are learning the mastery of drinking from an open cup.

Step number four: Hold off the milk, if necessary. I have seen many toddlers who would rather drink their meals instead of eating, so if your little one seems to be filling up on milk instead of eating solids at meals and snacks, offer milk or breast at the end of the meal.

Milk is a nutritious food that definitely has a place in a toddler’s diet but too much of it may not be a good thing so it is worth creating a balanced diet with plenty of nutrient-rich solid foods to give your little one the best start.

More articles:

Dairy Basics – too much or too little?

How to help your picky eater get enough iron