What should my toddler be drinking?

Your baby is 12 months old now, and her beverage options are expanding. What should you encourage?

Photo: @megpieinthesky via Instagram

The one-year mark is when parents get the go-ahead to start serving cow’s milk, if they choose. This milestone can coincide with a mom’s return to work (which, for many women, means weaning), and it’s confusing to figure out what your newly minted toddler should be drinking. Will his daycare provide milk? Are you going to pump bottles of breastmilk? What about formula? Or is it OK for 12-month-olds to drink only water during the day? Even the experts we asked disagreed.

Meredith McNally’s son, Sam, started daycare in Hamilton, Ont., at almost 11 months old. At home, Sam was breastfeeding four to six times in a 24-hour period, eating meals and drinking water whenever food was offered. “He was pretty good with his solids, but sometimes it was hard to tell how much he was actually eating. Nursing was a nice safety net,” McNally says. “If I couldn’t nurse him as much, I wondered if I should be topping him up with pumped milk or formula.”

Dietitians of Canada says kids ages 12 to 24 months should have 16 ounces (475 millilitres) of whole cow’s milk per day, or less if they’re still breastfeeding.

Paediatrician Jack Newman, known for his breastfeeding expertise and support, believes that it all depends on your baby’s eating and nursing habits. “If you have a nursling who continues to have three or four good feeds in a 24-hour period, is eating an ample amount of solids and is growing well, then your toddler may not even need to drink milk at daycare at all.”  Newman says she’s likely getting what she needs nutritionally from the breastmilk she has when she’s with you.

Registered dietitian Daina Kalnins, the director of clinical dietetics at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, says that packing pumped breastmilk for daycare works well (if you’re up for it), and nursing in the mornings and evenings is not something you have to give up. But three or four nursing sessions per day may be hard to fit in if you’re away from your baby most of the workday. “I don’t feel comfortable saying it’s OK to drink only water during the day,” she says. “They need a thirst-quencher, and it should be milk—breast milk, cow’s milk, soy, almond milk or formula.”

But at this age, says Kalnins, breastmilk, cow’s milk and formula are not meal replacements. “Kids should have the pleasure of exploring different foods.”

Two major nutrients that parents need to think about, says Kalnins, are iron and calcium. Expressed breastmilk or whole cow’s milk are both excellent sources of calcium (as are yogurt and cheese). But there is such a thing as too much milk: The Canadian Paediatric Society warns against consuming more than 24 ounces (720 millilitres) of cow’s milk per day, as it could lead to iron deficiency anemia. “They can fill up on milk, which is low in iron,” Kalnins explains. “Then kids may not be hungry for other foods and they also won’t get the fibre or other vitamins they need.”

When Darcy Hancock weaned her daughter, Claudia, at 13 months, she asked her doctor if she should start formula. “He said she was old enough that she could cope with just whole milk,” says the Abbotsford, BC, mom. Hancock had been pumping breastmilk for Claudia to drink at daycare. She continued to send breastmilk from her freezer stash and then, over a few days, switched to whole cow’s milk at home. “We warmed it up and gave it to her in a sippy cup that she was used to having pumped breastmilk in,” Hancock explains. “My husband gave her the cow’s milk while I was out of the room. After a couple of days she accepted cow’s milk from me, too.”

In classic toddler style, your child may not embrace the beverage you want him to—at least, not at first. Try small, incremental tweaks to the routine, and ask your child-care providers for advice. They have likely seen lots of toddlers going through this transition and can help you come up with a plan.

What about juice?
Daina Kalnins, the director of clinical dietetics at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, says juice should be a rare treat—even if it’s homemade. “Juicers discard a lot of the fibre. Kids should not fill up on sugar-sweetened things that aren’t good for their teeth and have limited nutrient value.”

Read more:
Whole milk may be a healthier choice for kids than low-fat or skim
What to do if your baby is refusing solid food
Does milk really do your kid’s body good?

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