If you’re wondering how to wean your toddler, you are in good company! It can be a tricky (and emotional) milestone, but there are doable tips to help wean a toddler from breastfeeding or bottles to whole milk. Plus, info on best milk, best cups, and how to handle common challenges.
How to Wean a Toddler
In parenting, it seems like just when we’ve gotten the hang of something, it’s time to stop doing that thing! When a baby turns 1 and is eating more solids, you may find yourself wondering if it’s time to wean.
It’s important to note, I’d like to say that weaning is a very personal decision each family needs to make for themselves. Everyone has an opinion about what’s right—including your pediatrician—but my goal here is simply to share options and information to make your personal decision a little easier … or at least more informed.
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Here are a few common reasons that you might be ready to wean a toddler.
- You feel done with breastfeeding and/or you want your body back.
- Your child is losing interest and just seems done.
- Bottles or nursing seem like they may be interfering with your toddler’s appetite at meals.
- Your toddler is preoccupied by bottles or nursing, and it’s impacting your day (or night) in a detrimental way.
- Bottles or nursing are interfering with toddler’s ability to drink from a cup.
TIP: There is no one right time to wean a toddler, and there might be a lot of other reasons you decide it’s time.
Weaning to Cow’s Milk
Usually, when we talk about “weaning,” we’re talking about the process when a mother stops breastfeeding or formula feeding a baby and transitions them to milk. And in most cases, milk means cow’s milk. (Though for some families with intolerances, that could mean a nondairy milk.)
After a baby turns 1, their digestive system and kidneys are developed enough to be able to handle the proteins and minerals in cow’s milk, which makes it a common time to start the process.
TIP: Read more about when a baby can stop drinking formula here.
What kind of milk is best for toddlers?
Always choose whole milk for a toddler since they need higher fat content in the food they eat. While I don’t always have the ability to buy all organic food, I do prioritize it with dairy.
TIP: Read more about the best milk for toddlers here, including the best nondairy alternatives.
What’s the right amount of milk for my toddler?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids have 2-3 servings of dairy a day. Two cups of whole milk a day is enough to meet the vitamin D recommendations and more than 3 cups of milk may reduce a child’s appetite for other foods—which could limit their ability to ingest a wide range of nutrients.
TIP: In our house, we serve about 4 ounces of milk (or ½ cup) at meals and water with snacks.
Why does a baby need to be 1 before they can drink milk?
Babies under 12 months of age have immature digestive systems that aren’t very good at digesting milk proteins. The proteins and minerals in cow’s milk can stress a baby’s kidneys and can cause diarrhea. Thankfully, this improves by the time they are a year old.
How to Wean a Toddler from Formula to Whole Milk
Once your baby has turned 1, you can start the process of transitioning them from their infant formula to milk. You’ll want to go through the following steps.
- Continue using their bottle and usual routine, but replace 1/4-½ of the formula with whole milk.
- Continue using their bottle and usual routine, but replace 1/2-¾ of the formula with whole milk.
- Continue using their bottle and usual routine, but replace all of the formula with whole milk.
TIP: This gradual process allows the child to adjust to the taste and also gives their body a chance to adjust to the new proteins. You can do this gradually over the course of a few days or a week. Check with your pediatrician for more specifics.
What temperature should the milk be?
You can continue to warm the milk if your child preferred their formula that way, or offer it cold if they don’t seem to mind it either way. Temperature is a personal preference!
How to Wean a Toddler from Breastmilk to Whole Milk
This is less straightforward than when you’re dealing with formula and may be faster or slower depending on the child. Around the 1-year mark, you can start offering a small amount of milk, like ½ cup, with meals. That will introduce them to the flavor and give them a chance to try milk along with other food.
And the more they drink (and eat), the less they’ll naturally need to nurse to satisfy their appetite. (This may happen gradually or faster—there’s a wide range of normal.)
They may also still want to breastfeed for emotional comfort, so you may or may not need to be purposeful as you cut out daytime feedings. Typically, it’s easiest to leave the sessions close to sleep (going down for a nap or bedtime) in place and eliminate ones during the time they are awake first. Keep the child busy, distract them with an activity, and be sure to offer them a regular routine of snacks and meals so they are able to get plenty of nutrition from their food.
In some cases, weaning this way will happen naturally and you may find yourself down to just morning or evening nursing session soon after their first birthday. (I experienced that once!) In other cases, you’ll need to make a choice to deliberately reduce breastfeeding sessions. (I also experienced that!) Either way, there’s no perfect end goal and it’s totally fine to continue breastfeeding and offering regular milk at meals.
Weaning can happen at 12 months or 3 years or anywhere before, after, or in between. The “right” time really depends on your own specific situation.
TIP: You may need to consciously offer food first, then breastmilk, if your toddler doesn’t seem very interested in food. They may be full from breastmilk and may need that simple adjustment to help reset their expectations.
Sample Breastfeeding Weaning Schedule
Here’s a look at a sample gentle weaning schedule for a breastfeeding toddler of any age older than 1. This will help prevent engorgement and allow both mom and toddler plenty of time to adjust to the new routine.
- 7 a.m. breastfeed, 8 a.m. breakfast with milk, 10 a.m. breastfeed (before nap), 12 p.m. lunch with milk, 2 p.m. breastfeed (before nap), 4 p.m. snack, 6 p.m. dinner with milk, 7 p.m. breastfeed
- 7 a.m. breastfeed, 8 a.m. breakfast with milk, 10 a.m. snack (before nap), 12 p.m. lunch with milk, 2 p.m. breastfeed (before nap), 4 p.m. snack, 6 p.m. dinner with milk, 7 p.m. breastfeed
- 7 a.m. breastfeed, 8 a.m. breakfast with milk, 10 a.m. snack (before nap), 12 p.m. lunch with milk, 2 p.m. snack (before nap), 4 p.m. snack, 6 p.m. dinner with milk, 7 p.m. breastfeed
- 7 a.m. breakfast with milk, 9 a.m. snack (before nap), 11:30 a.m. lunch with milk, 2 p.m. snack (before nap), 4 p.m. snack, 6 p.m. dinner with milk, 7 p.m. breastfeed
- 7 a.m. breakfast with milk, 9 a.m. snack (before nap), 11:30 a.m. lunch with milk, 2 p.m. snack (before nap), 4 p.m. snack, 6 p.m. dinner with milk, 7 p.m. bedtime
TIP: This transition could happen over the course of a month, 2 months, 6 months, or a year at any age over 12 months. It’s really up to you and your child—there’s no one size fits all here!
When should a baby stop drinking from a bottle?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends we start to wean a baby from a bottle between 12 and 24 months of age, so at some point during the 1-year-old year. Keep in mind that weaning from a bottle is a process and it may take a little longer for some kids than others. Many families aim to be totally done with bottles by age 2.
TIP: Find more about when a baby should be done with formula here.
How to Wean a Toddler from a Bottle
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that we start the weaning process by the time a toddler is 18 months. This, they say, can help prevent tooth decay—which could be an issue if the child was falling asleep with the bottle in their mouth. But if that timeframe seems to soon or you’re already past it, here are some other tips to help transition from a bottle to a cup.
- Start by substituting a cup for the midday bottle.
- Allow time for the child to adjust to using their cup and make a big deal out of it. Go together to pick a new cup out, talk up being a “big boy” (or girl), and be consistent.
- Expect that the child may protest, but remember that your job is to help them through the transitions … and the emotions they may have about it.
- Continue replacing bottles with cups (or other food), saving the most comforting session for last whether that’s bedtime, as part of the bedtime routine, or the one first thing in the morning.
- Offer milk or water at meals and be sure you’re giving your child ample opportunities to get the nutrition and satiety they need from meals and snacks.
- Distract them with fun activities or cuddles if they get fixated on not having a bottle.
- If they forget their bottle one day during the weaning phase, follow their lead and don’t bring it back. You can go right into that being part of the new daily routine.
- Substitute other comforts for their bottle, such as a story and a snuggle at bedtime, or a new special goodnight song.
TIP: Remember that kids have short memories at this age, so while they may have strong feelings during the transition, if you’re consistent, they will soon be on to the next thing.
What should I do if my child just wants milk (and not food)?
It can be such a challenge to know how much milk a child truly needs when they keep asking (and sometimes even crying) for it! One of my kids loves her milk and would probably drink it exclusively for all of her meals if allowed. To help ensure she gets to enjoy her milk and other foods, I limit the amount of milk to 4 ounces at any given meal. You could choose a different amount, but that structure has worked well for us—she always knows she’ll get to have some milk but I have the structure of knowing how much to give her.
TIP: Remember that milk (or formula) has offered emotional comfort for the entirety of your child’s life and have empathy and patience with their attachment to it.
Does my child really need to drink milk?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends kids have 2-3 servings of dairy a day when they are eating solid food, which could include milk—or other foods such as yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, or cheese to get their recommended calcium (and protein). We love mixing in these dairy options, along with milk, but you could choose to do one or the other. (You really don’t need to do toddler formula either.)
TIP: If you don’t do dairy at all, there are many alternatives now available. (Many nondairy substitutes are low in protein and calcium, so always read the label to make sure you know what you’re getting.)
How to Stop Breastfeeding at Night
If you’re looking to wean your toddler at night, consistency will again be key. Offer a substitute source of comfort such as a lovely or a snuggle and a song. I also love the sleep advice in the Happy Sleeper Book. Know that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that most kids should be able to go all night without food or milk and while your child may protest, that is likely more an emotional response than a physical one. Be gentle and kind with yourself during this process of night wakings, as it’s often harder on us parents than the kids!
TIP: Learn more about Night Weaning here for specifics on reducing night feeds.
Best Weaning Tips
- Remember that weaning is a very personal decision that each family needs to make for themselves. There’s no one right way or right time!
- Wait to wean to cow’s milk until a child has turned 1. (You can do water in a sippy cup before then though.)
- Always choose whole milk for a toddler since they need higher fat content in the food that they eat.
- If a child can’t tolerate cow’s milk, learn about the best alternative milks here.
- Introduce milk in a sippy cup with meals or feeding time.
- Plan out a weaning schedule, or go with a more natural approach. (Both are OK!) Try not to have the process start during a bout of teething, as that may be more challenging.
- Gradually replace formula with whole milk to allow the child to adjust to the flavor and new proteins when weaning a toddler from a bottle with formula.
- Go together to pick out a new sippy cup to make it a big special thing.
- Have a taste test of other milks to see what they like if switching to whole cow’s milk hasn’t been successful. Some kids prefer the flavor of one milk over another, so try different unsweetened plant milks to see if there’s one they like more.
- Remember that kids actually don’t need to drink milk at all if they’re getting 2-3 sources of dairy a day, or are eating foods that provide calcium and vitamin D.
- Try to go gradually enough to give yourself the time to adjust physically and emotionally, as some women can experience engorgement or weaning-related depression.
- As you work on eliminating bottle feeding sessions close to wake ups or bedtime or nap, you can try to substitute other forms of comfort such as a lovie, a blankie, a new ritual (saying goodnight to all of the favorite toys or family members), etc.
- Aim to eliminate the bottle by age 2.
- As with most things related to parenting, the key in this transition is to be as consistent as you can so your child knows what to expect.
- Work with a lactation consultant in the case of clogged ducts, mastitis, breast engorgement, challenges with milk production, or other breastmilk issues.
Do you have additional questions about how to wean a toddler that I missed here? Please ask them below in the comments!
This post was first published August 2020.