After twelve months of age, many parents are excited to introduce milk to their growing child. However, it can be overwhelming trying to decide between cow’s milk, alternative milks, and even toddler formulas. Milk provides children with a good source of calcium, protein, vitamin D, and other nutrients. Surprisingly, approximately 65% of young children and 35% of teens do not meet their recommended intake for dairy, according to the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Understanding the difference between milks, and the recommended intake for dairy, can help us as parents provide our children with the nutrients they need for necessary growth, improved mood, and overall health.
0-12 months old – Children under one year of age do not yet have the necessary digestive enzymes to digest the protein in milk. It is best to wait until about one year of age to start introducing milk. A good strategy is to start giving babies at this age an ounce or two of milk in a sippy cup so they can get used to the taste.
12 to 24 months – Keep in mind that milk is not a substitute for a meal. The overall volume of milk will go down from when your child was a baby. Most of their calories at this age should be coming from solid foods. It is best to keep milk consumption from 16 ounces to no more than 24 ounces per day. This ensures that your child will still be hungry enough for solids. In addition, more than 24 ounces of milk can lead to anemia since large amounts of milk will prevent the absorption of iron from their diet.
Milk Options –
Cow’s milk – Toddlers need healthy fat in order to facilitate the expansive brain growth that occurs in this age range. Toddlers also have increased needs for calcium and vitamin D. For this reason, whole cow’s milk is a good option for the majority of children ages one to two years old.
Breastfeeding – If you are breastfeeding at least 3 to 4 times a day, your child will get their needs through breastmilk and does not need cow’s milk. However, if breastfeeding is decreasing to once or twice a day, they will likely need 8-16 ounces of milk a day in order to meet their nutritional needs.
Goat Milk – Goat milk is considered by some people to be easier to digest than cow’s milk if you have a sensitivity. Look for goat milk supplemented with vitamin D, such as Meyenberg brand, which is provided by WIC and comes in whole-fat or low-fat options.
Soy Milk – If your child has a milk protein allergy, or you are raising your child vegan or vegetarian, you may need a non-dairy milk option. Soy milk has a similar amount of protein, calcium, and vitamin D as cow’s milk. Because of this, it is generally the highest recommended milk-alternative by pediatric experts. Soy milk has about half the fat content as whole milk, so it is important to introduce solids with healthy fats such as avocado, eggs, or peanut butter. Look for unsweetened soy milk that is fortified with calcium.
Other Non-Dairy Milks – Other milk-alternatives such as oat milk, almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, and rice milk are generally lower in calories, protein, fat, and vitamin D, all important nutrients for growing children. If these are the best options for your family, ensure your child is getting many sources of protein and fat through solid foods.
Pea Protein Milk – New protein milks have come to the market, including Ripple Milk. Ripple Milk is made from pea protein and is similar in calories, protein, and other nutrients to cow’s milk, making it a good non-dairy option.
Toddler Formulas – Toddler formulas are marketed to children ages 9 months to 3 years old. Toddler formulas are generally not recommended by pediatric experts. They contain powdered milk and a higher content of sweeteners, sodium, and fat than other milk options. If your child has a medical condition, or you believe they are not able to meet their recommended needs through food alone, seeing a Registered Dietitian as part of your child’s healthcare team is recommended.
2-8 years old – At age two, it is recommended to switch from whole milk to a lower fat milk such as 1% or 2%. Children at this age only need 16 to 20 ounces of milk a day, or an equivalent two servings of dairy.
9-18 years old – growth through puberty increases children’s need for dairy in their diet. Children at this age need three servings of milk or dairy products a day.
If your child doesn’t like milk – Children can get their recommended dairy intake through other dairy products like yogurt, cheese, sour cream, and cream cheese. If your child cannot have dairy, they can get calcium through foods such as leafy greens and calcium fortified cereals. Ensure they are also getting healthy fat and protein in their diet. You can determine if they need a calcium supplement by talking with their healthcare provider including a Registered Dietitian.
Sweetened Milks – Flavored milks are a great occasional treat for kids. If your children like to have flavored milks daily, it can help to buy your own chocolate or other syrup to add to your preferred milk. Most often, adding flavoring yourself will ensure a lower sugar content than store bought flavored milks.
Author: Andrea Cox, RDN, LD.