Toddler preferences are a part of parenting. One common concern parents face is that their toddler prefers milk over solids. Whether it’s breastmilk, cow’s milk, or a milk alternative, a toddler needs more than just milk to meet all of their nutritional needs. While breastmilk and/or formula make up the bulk of your child’s nutrition prior to age one, after age one, milk should become more of a supplement.
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Factors to Consider
Breastmilk vs Formula vs Cow’s Milk
If your child is breastfeeding, you can continue breastfeeding for as long as it works for you and your child. You don’t need to wean at a year (although you can if you no longer want to breastfeed). The World Health Organization recommends to continue breastfeeding, in addition to complementary foods, until at least 2 years of age. The key is that it needs to be working for you and your child. If breastfeeding is causing you additional stress, it’s totally fine to switch to cow’s milk or a milk alternative.
If you have been offering formula, you’ll want to switch to cow’s milk or a milk alternative at a year. We recommend to limit milk to no more than 16-24 ounces/day after a year. Keep it closer to the 16 ounce side if you’re offering other dairy products like cheese or yogurt in addition to milk.
Your Child’s Growth
A big concern with kids who take in higher quantities of breastmilk or cow’s milk is that they don’t have room in their stomachs for solid foods. While cow’s milk and breastmilk provide a lot of things, they do not provide all the nutrients that your child needs. It’s important that they are getting in other foods so that they can have adequate growth.
Possible Nutrient Deficiencies
With high cow’s milk intake especially, iron deficiency anemia is common. Breastmilk is also not high in iron. In both cases, the higher intakes of milk make it difficult for the child to take in adequate amounts of iron containing foods. The calcium in cow’s milk also makes it harder for the body to absorb the necessary iron.
Why Your Child May Prefer Milk
Every child is different, so your child’s reason may not be in this list, but here are some common reasons that children prefer milk over solid foods. You can use these reasons to help come up with solutions for your child.
Especially with breastfeeding, there is an aspect of comfort that goes along with milk. They tend to turn to milk when they aren’t feeling well or are stressed. They may prefer it over foods that are unfamiliar or in situations where they don’t feel comfortable. Having low stress mealtimes can make them feel more comfortable with other solid foods.
Whether your child has a diagnosed challenge with textures or other sensory difficulties, solids are more of a challenge than milk. They may not be consciously choosing the easier option, but the liquid choice is easier. Working with an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory challenges can help with some of these problems.
Sometimes toddlers just want to control things. This may be an area where they feel like they can have a little control and they are trying to exert their independence. You can help them have some control by offering them choices at meals (while still keeping in mind your jobs at meal times).
This goes along with comfort, but in times of illness, many kids want to revert back to a more comforting diet of milk. During teething, solid foods can cause a lot of discomfort. Offering foods that are cold can help their gums feel a little better while they are uncomfortable.
Your child may prefer the taste of breastmilk or cow’s milk to the taste of other foods. In these cases, it can just be a matter of offering foods prepared in different ways. You can try things like food chaining, where you gradually make teeny tiny changes to the foods your child likes to help them gradually expand their palate over time.
There’s no one strategy that will work for every family and every child. You may need to pick and choose to see which of these strategies will work best for you.
Set Up a Schedule
It doesn’t need to be rigid. In fact, in most cases, it shouldn’t be. You can either offer milk at meals or offer it as a snack (snacks tend to work best for parents who are breastfeeding). Milk is only offered at those times. That’s it. This helps limit the overall amount of milk that your child is offered and helps make sure that your child is likely coming to meal times hungry enough to eat other foods.
Milk AFTER Meals
For parents who are breastfeeding, you were probably told to breastfeeding 30-60 minutes prior to meals when your baby was first starting solids. We’re going to flip that now that your child is older. Now we want to do solid foods first and then do milk after. For some kids, however, this can backfire. They will realize that if they wait long enough they get milk and so they won’t eat anything at mealtimes knowing that milk is coming. Again, you know your kid best. For kids like that, I would usually recommend offering milk as snacks between meals, instead of associating it with a meal.
Offer Nutrient Dense Choices
When you are choosing foods for your child, choose nutrient dense foods. Look for foods with high iron content. Usually we try to offer iron containing foods 1-2 times a day, but aim to have one at every meal so that if your child doesn’t eat the iron food at one meal, they still have multiple opportunities to get their iron for the day.
Remember that your child is a person who will prefer foods over other foods. Try to make sure that there is at least one food (other than milk) at each meal that they *usually* like to eat. This doesn’t mean that you need to make them their own meal, but there can be a side of fruit or bread available that you know your child usually likes.
Try to rotate in some of their favorite entrees into the meal plan if you’re able to as well. They are a member of the family, but they aren’t the only member of the family, so make sure that some of your favorites are there too!
If your child is struggling with textures, definitely reach out to your child’s pediatrician for a referral to occupational therapy. They can help you work out a plan to help your child gradually transition to more difficult textures. In the meantime, try to have a variety of textures available. Yes, we want our kids to be able to eat a variety of textures, but if your child is still preferring purees, it’s ok to have some purees out (with some more challenging textures) while you’re working with them to advance to more complicated ones.
Just like I recommend with picky eaters in general, doing food play can be a great way to help your child get comfortable with new foods and new textures. Playing with food away from meal time can help take the pressure off of eating the foods. Doing so at the table can encourage them to eat foods during the meal. Playing with your own food (without expecting your child to do so) can make the meal more enjoyable for everyone too!
Model the Behavior
One of the key benefits of family meals is that you can model the behavior you wish to see. If you want your child to eat a variety of foods, eat a variety of foods yourself. You probably won’t notice a change overnight, but over time your child will likely start copying whatever it is that you do.
This is generally a temporary phase for toddlers. Most grow out of it. If you are at all concerned, bring it up with your pediatrician or ask for a referral to speak with a pediatric dietitian. Try to limit cow’s milk to 16-24 ounces per day. Offer nutrient dense choices throughout the day. Continue to offer other options and give your child plenty of exposures to new foods. If you’re looking for more support, check out my Family Meals Made Easy Course.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.