Best Milk for Toddlers: Your Ultimate Guide

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There are more types of milk available for purchase in your local grocery store than ever before. How do you know which is the best milk for toddlers? 

In this article, you’ll learn about the types of milk, what about the content of milk that matters, and how to confidently choose the best milk for toddlers and your whole family.

When to start serving milk?

It is important to include milk in your child’s diet after the age of one year. Around this time, an infant is typically eating foods too. The need for infant formula decreases and milk is served with foods. Breastfeeding can continue as long as mutually desired between mother and child; you don’t have to wait to start milk and dairy foods in the diet until you’ve stopped breastfeeding!

How much milk should my child have?

  • Infant (less than 12 months)
    • While it is okay to feed your infant foods containing dairy like cheese and yogurt, once your child has started eating foods, it is not advisable to introduce cow milk that would otherwise replace breast milk or infant formula. Human breast milk and infant formula contain essential vitamins, minerals and water. These nutrients are essential for your infant’s growth and development.
  • Toddler (12-24 months)
    • Whole milk is recommended for toddlers. Whole milk contains dietary fats that are needed for child growth and development. Toddlers should have 16-24 ounces (2-3 cups) of whole milk per day.
  • Big kids (3+ years)
    • After the age of 2 years, it is okay to switch to a lower fat content of milk, like 2% or low-fat milk. Make sure to discuss this with your pediatrician or dietitian.

Additional factors affecting milk consumption

If you have multiple kids in different age groups who are drinking milk, I recommend keeping it simple and serving whole milk. Similarly, make sure you limit the milk to no more than 24 ounces per day. While milk is healthy, drinking too much milk may put your child at risk for iron deficiency, since cow milk is low in iron.

If your child does not drink very much milk, consider adding other dairy foods to your daily routine like yogurt or cheese. Aim for 2-3 servings of dairy per day. This is about 1/3 cup yogurt or ½ ounce cheese. This will ensure that your child is consuming enough calcium to support their growth and development. 

Unless your child has been diagnosed with a lactose intolerance or dairy allergy, cow milk is an appropriate source of calories, nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Milk contains calcium, protein, fat, and vitamin A and vitamin D that are vital for childhood growth. 

However, if cow milk is not an option for your child, or doesn’t match your preferences, non-dairy alternatives exist for certain circumstances. Quick tip: you may need to pair with a Vitamin D supplement.

Explain all the milks to me!

Cow’s milk is most commonly available. The types of cow milk vary most by the fat content: whole milk (3.5% fat), 2%, 1% and skim milk. 

Regardless of fat content, the amount of protein, vitamins and minerals in cow milk remains similar per serving. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends switching from whole milk to 2% milk or low fat milk after the age of 2 years, especially if there is an increased risk of overweight or obesity for the child. 

What is the whole story about whole milk?

Whole milk was given its name because it is the least amount processed before purchase, compared to other dairy milk. However, the name implies that the product contains a lot more fat. Whole milk contains about 1.5% more milkfat by weight compared to 2% milk. This is a difference of 3 grams of fat and about 30 calories per serving. 

Newer studies show that the difference in fat and calorie content of milk that a child consumes is not likely to have a major impact on childhood weight problems. Overall dietary patterns, are big factors to consider when researching childhood and adult obesity. For example, more people consume processed foods and sugar sweetened beverages than previous decades. These foods contribute to overall eating patterns.

My child prefers chocolate milk – is that okay?

It should be noted that chocolate milk or other flavored milks fall into the category of sugar sweetened beverages!  Since these milks are sweetened, they contain added sugar and more calories than unsweetened milk. Chocolate milk or other sweetened milk may be fun to have on occasion.

It is recommended that children under the age of 2 years not consume sources of added sugar. For children over the age of 2 years, the limit of added sugars is about 25 grams (or approximately 6 teaspoons).

What about cow milk alternatives?

If your child has been diagnosed with a lactose allergy, lactose-free dairy options are a simple alternative for your family. Lactose-free milks contain the same essential nutrients as regular milks. The lactose (the naturally occurring sugar) has been broken down already.

If dairy is not an option for your child, or if your child ultimately does not prefer cow milk, there are many non-dairy milk alternatives available such as soy milk, nut-based milk like almond or cashew milk, rice milk, oat milk and pea protein milk to name a few. 

Protein content

Not all milk alternatives contain the same nutrients though. Of the the plant-based milk options, soy milk is considered the best non-dairy alternative. It contains more protein than other alternatives and is usually fortified with calcium and vitamin D. For instance, soy milk has about 6 grams of protein per cup whereas almond milk contains 1 gram of protein. 

Consider the added sugar

However, plant-based milks often contain added sugar that helps improve flavor and extend shelf life. Look for unsweetened plant-based milk options when possible! As you can see, it is important to read nutrition fact labels when comparing non-dairy milk options, as they vary in their nutrient profiles.

Nutrition profile

When reviewing nutrition fact labels, consider the amount of calories, protein, fat, calcium, vitamin D, and sugar. Cow milk has the highest amount of calories, and additionally contains more protein, fat, calcium and vitamin D (when fortified). This demonstrates that cow milk is nutrient dense! Cow milk will contain sugar, as lactose is the sugar compound that is naturally present and is the basic form of carbohydrate, or energy, in milk. Cow milk does not contain added sugar, unless it is flavored.

On the other hand, plant-based milk options will contain less calories, and therefore less protein and fat. Some plant-based milks are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Unsweetened plant-based milk will not contain added sugar.  

Is organic milk better than regular milk?

The nutrition of milk is the same whether it is organically or conventionally produced. The organic label demonstrates the farming practices that were used to feed and grow the cow and process the milk.

Organic milk comes from cows that have not been treated with hormones. Their feed has not been treated with pesticides or fertilizers, and they have access to pasture to graze. They have not been treated with antibiotics. While conventional milk is not held to the same standards as the organic label, it is held to the same safety and regulatory guidelines set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Antibiotics may be used to treat or prevent mastitis in cows, and some cows are given hormones to produce more milk.

From a nutrition standpoint, the two milks offer the same benefits of protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals. From an environmental perspective, the production of organic milk uses less resources and promotes biodiversity. Ultimately, plant-based milks are more environmentally friendly than cow milk.  

The extra standards of organic dairy production elicit a higher price tag on the gallon of milk you purchase at the grocery store. As with any purchase, it is up to you to choose how to spend money on items you value and what works best for your family and budget.

What is the best milk for toddlers?

That, my friend, is not up to me – it is up to you! Make sure to serve milk at mealtimes and ensure that your child is not over or under consuming milk. Personally, I serve my children 2% milk because they love it and I feel good about that decision nutritionally. 

Other than milk, my girls primarily drink water, and eat balanced meals and snacks. I do not worry about the extra fat or calorie content in one serving of milk. My kids stay fuller for a longer time when meals contain milk. If there is concern about calorie or fat intake over the course of days or weeks, and milk is contributing to the overall effect, then it may be worth considering a lower fat cow milk option. You know what will work best for your family!

If you are interested in learning more about toddler nutrition, sign up to receive my free guide on Healthy Snacks for Toddlers!

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