I recently got this question (and many, many other versions of this question) emailed to me and wanted to cover it in a blog post.
“Currently, we are trying to wean my girl off her bottles and hopefully less milk. She is 15 months old, uses Dr. Browns bottles, and drinks at least three 8 ounce bottles a day, sometimes it can be a bit more depending on if she woke up through the night, or woke up really early that day. Is there a bottle that most toddlers drop next? Morning? Lunch?”
Let’s answer this together!
When to transition your baby off the bottle
Bottles serve a purpose for our babies. They allow for easy access to milk (their main source of nutrition for the majority of their first year of life) using the only skills babies have to extract milk – the suckle/suck! As our babies begin to be introduced to solids, their oral motor skills begin to advance more and more, until they not only know how to suck, but also how to munch and chew and maneuver food around in their mouth! They also learn how to wrap their lips around the rim of an open cup and take more controlled sips of a liquid. Practice for this begins at 6 months of age! Need more info on open cup drinking for babies? Click here to read more.
Now, when we keep our babies on a bottle past 12 months of age, we actually keep our babies sort of “stuck” on this suckle/suck skill, which over time can cause malformation of the mouth muscles. Prolonged bottle use also increases risk of tooth decay and makes it way easier for them to drink more milk than they need at this age. Drinking more milk than they need at this age may not seem like a bad thing at first (after all.. milk/breastmilk is healthy right??). Yes it most definitely is! But too many calories from milk means a couple things. For one, there isn’t a lot of room left for solids, and picky eating often emerges in toddlers who just aren’t hungry for what they’re offered and who can opt to fill up on their milk instead. Second, milk is low in iron and can displace other high iron foods in the diet. Iron deficiency is most common in those toddlers who are drinking too much milk.
To be clear, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the bottle be given up completely at around 12 months and almost certainly by 18 months. Based on what I’ve seen in my practice, my personal recommendation is between 12-14 months. Do what works for you and your family and know that there is no need to follow this timeline EXACTLY. However, thinking ahead about how you will start this transition and beginning to make the change happen little by little (if not going cold turkey) is always advised so that it’s not a process that has to drag out and you minimize any negative consequences!
How to make the transition
Now, there are actually two transitions to make around this age – transitioning them onto cow’s milk and transitioning off the bottle. My suggestion is to do them both at the same time so you’re not going through two weaning processes. If you’re thinking of an alternative to cow’s milk, read this post first.
Before I get into the two options for transitioning off the bottle, I first recommend that your baby/toddler has learned to drink out of an open cup/straw cup first. That way, you can be sure they are familiar with the cup and are able to get enough to drink to keep up with their fluid needs without needing a bottle. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but assuming they’ve been practicing for at least a month or two, they should be able to take in a decent amount of liquid from an open cup. Remember, at 12-14 months, a baby needs only 16 oz. of milk per day. This also prevents the need to have to move from a bottle –> sippy cup –> open cup. Again, if you want to read up on why limiting the sippy cup is recommended and tips on open cup drinking, click here.
Option #1 – Gradual weaning
Move milk feedings to an open cup one feeding at a time and if needed, begin narrowing the time gap between a milk feeding and meal until you’re offering milk WITH meals vs before meal.
If you want to go the slow and steady route, I find it’s easiest to eliminate the bottles around daytime meals and snacks first. You can begin to do this beginning around 11 months of age. It’s easier to get them used to the fact that you drink from milk in a cup sitting down at mealtime, rather than away from the table as a separate “milk feeding” like they may be used to first thing in the morning or before bed for example. Start with the the mid-morning or mid-afternoon milk feeding. If they haven’t already transitioned to a solid food snack at these times, begin offering them a snack at the table with milk in a cup. Do this one snack at a time and then move onto lunch as well. Keep the bottle out of sight for those meals/snacks – in between make sure to offer only water from a cup. Do this for a week or two before moving onto the morning and evening bottles.
Now, I know how much baby loves the morning and evening bottles! But it’s ok – they can let go of this! For the morning bottle, begin by delaying the milk feeding after waking up. Take your time in your morning routine (waking, changing, playing with baby) and maybe hold them and tend to your other children first before moving onto a milk feeding as you usually would. If you need to move breakfast up 15-30 minutes earlier to narrow the gap, you can do this as well depending on your schedule. Continue to do this for a few days to a week until your child’s milk feeding time basically coincides exactly with their solid food breakfast, where you can offer them milk in a cup alongside their food at the table. This usually works best when they are offered breakfast in the highchair about 30 minutes after waking.
The hardest bottle to get rid of is usually the bedtime bottle, because for many it’s part of the bedtime routine. My suggestion is to begin by switching around when you offer them the bottle (instead of offering it before bed, offer it as a bedtime snack if needed). THEN begin the bedtime routine. You may need to replace their bottle with another comfort object during the bedtime routine as they get used to this. If you need help with working on this and getting down the proper bedtime routine, check out Little Z’s sleep consulting. Once you’ve got this down, again, switch out that bedtime snack to a solid food snack that happens at the table.
Option #2 – Cold Turkey
Prep them ahead 1-2 weeks ahead of time that they are a big girl/boy and won’t be needing a bottle anymore!
If you want to avoid dragging this all out and do this all at once, this is likely the way you’ll want to go with specifically if you have an older toddler. You may likely only have to deal with a fuss for a day or two before the whole process is over, while other toddlers are SO ready for this and go along with this process really well if you get them excited for it! You can do this by first and foremost – prepping your toddler than they are a big boy/girl and not a baby anymore who needs bottles! Show them that bottles are for babies and they are big now! Then proceed with making a big deal about the day of the switch. You can take them to the store and have them pick out a special new cup that they may like and be excited to drink from from now on. Again, make it a big deal that this is going to be their new cup that they will drink milk out of!
The day before the switch, have a “bye bye bottle” celebration! Let them see you take all the bottles from your cupboards and put them in one bag and have them come say “Bye bye!” to the bottles! Put on some music, dance and get silly and happy with your toddler that they are moving on! Then physically remove them from your house (you can of course give them away or just stash them somewhere temporarily), but make sure your child sees you take them away and encourage them to celebrate and say “yay” to no more bottles! They can give them a kiss and wave goodbye, and bring out their new big kid cup if you want during the ceremony and let them hold to to signify again, that this is here to replace it!
- If they don’t take to the taste of cow’s milk or alternative right away, begin by filling a cup with 25% cow’s milk (or milk alternative or breastmilk) and 75% formula/breastmilk. Keep them on this for a few days to a week, depending on how quickly they take to it, and then gradually increase the ratio of cow’s milk or alternative each week until they are drinking the desired milk.
- There isn’t really a need to warm up the milk in the cup – in fact, I wouldn’t get them used to this. Then you’ll have to wean them off of this too!
- If you need to ease your baby/toddler into the transitional process even more, you could always offer less and less milk in the bottle at each milk feeding until they barely are drinking from it at all.
- If your child asks for the bottle, distract them or try offering them a hug, cuddle or teddy in it’s place. If you are transitioning them slowly, let them know when the next bottle feeding opportunity is. E.g. “You want the bottle! I will be bringing the bottle out after suppertime!” or if you are going cold turkey say something like “We will be having milk in our cups at lunch. What book would you like to read now?”
- Be super patient! This will take some extra love and persistence no matter which method you choose. The bottle may be a precious thing to your baby/toddler so it may not be the easiest transition for them. However know that it’s necessary, will need to happen at some point, and you are doing the best thing by making the transition within the recommended timeline. Be kind and sympathetic but consistent throughout the process!
- Avoid getting caught up in how much food your toddler eats and using milk (aka bottle) as a way to make sure they’ve gotten enough calories and ease your mind! It’s understandable, but if your child is at a healthy weight and has no underlying medical issues or specific direction from your pediatrician, don’t worry meal to meal how much your toddler is eating. This will vary like crazy and using milk as a crutch will only make your toddler more dependent on milk and less likely to every get out of the picky eating stage. If you want more information on typical toddler behaviour, how to manage feeding a toddler and avoiding picky eating, sign up for my Feeding Toddlers online course!
- Keep to a feeding schedule and ensure that milk is offered at meal/snack times and water is offered in between.
Finally, remember that these are all suggestions only! You may have a strategy or tips that work better for you. Reach out to me via Instagram or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions!