Do you feel overwhelmed by the abundance of options when it comes to choosing the best milk for your toddler? Is cow’s milk the best? What if your child is allergic to dairy? Soy? Nuts? What if your family is vegetarian? I hope this in-depth post will help you to make the most informed decision.
When to introduce milk?
If you’re breastfeeding, you might be feeling confused as to when to introduce milk to your child’s diet and whether or not it’s necessary to do so. Just like with many transitions, it’s scary to move from breastfeeding/formula to milk, isn’t it? I discussed in this post the importance of taking a gentle and slow approach when it comes to weaning as well as the current recommendations on how long to continue breastfeeding.
First, know that breastmilk will continue to offer your child many benefits from nutritional, immunological, and emotional standpoints. However, after one year of age, getting nutrients from foods becomes a priority as milk, whether it’s breastmilk, cow’s milk, or plant-based alternatives, cannot meet all their needs to support their growth and development.
If your child is still nursing a lot after one year of age and isn’t showing much interest in food, I recommend offering the meal before you nurse. Once your child starts to eat more food, the number of sessions should naturally decrease. The goal here is that by age two, your child will rely less on liquid nutrition and more on solid food.
What’s the Best Milk for Toddlers?
Toddler’s tummies are small, so it’s important to make every bite and sip count!
- Milk nutrition: Does it contain the essential nutrients like fat, protein, calcium, and vitamin D?
- Does it contain added sugar?
- What’s on the ingredient list?
- Is it affordable?
- Is it readily available?
- Dietary preferences – is your family vegetarian?
- Medical conditions – does your child have an allergy to dairy, soy, or nuts?
The most important thing to remember is that regardless of which milk you choose, you want to ensure that your child’s diet is not lacking the key nutrients mentioned.
So for instance, if you select almond or coconut milk, you’ll need to be more proactive about serving other foods that are rich in protein and fat.
Nutrition Comparison Chart:
Here’s a chart for a comparison of common unflavored, unsweetened milk alternatives. The numbers are based on USDA nutrient database. Do check your labels as protein and vitamin content may differ depending on the brand you get.
Type (1 cup)
Vitamin D (IU)
Whole Cow’s Milk
2% Cow’s Milk
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends cow’s milk in the absence of a dairy allergy. That’s because, as you can see in the chart above, cow’s milk is an excellent and convenient source of many of the key nutrients. It’s also readily available and cost-effective compared to others.
Now, I know there’s a lot of misinformation out there that you MUST introduce cow’s milk at a year. That’s simply not true. Again, referring to the chart, breastmilk has a higher fat content compared to whole cow’s milk, and the nutrients are more bioavailable as well, meaning they are more easily absorbed in the body.
As long as you’re nursing at least 3-4 times a day, there’s no need to add cow’s milk.
However, the two key nutrients during this age, calcium and vitamin D, are quite low in breastmilk. Therefore, you must ensure that your child is getting adequate amounts through their diet. More on this below.
What’s absolutely certain is that you do NOT want to give cow’s milk before one. That’s because all the extra protein, minerals, and sodium in cow’s milk is really hard on babies’ kidneys. Not to mention, their digestive system cannot properly digest cow’s milk protein.
Additionally, it can put your baby at risk for iron deficiency as it contains low amounts of iron but high levels of calcium and vitamin D, which inhibit the absorption of iron.
The recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics is to give whole milk to support the rapid development of their brain and nervous system. In fact, fats should NOT be restricted at this age.
2 years and older
While the recommendation is to switch to low-fat milk at this time to reduce total fat intake, there’s a lack of evidence to show its overall benefit. The fact is, fat is an ESSENTIAL part of a well-balanced diet and super important for not only babies but young toddlers. They continue to have increased caloric requirements for growth and brain development.
Not to mention, a low-fat diet often leads to high carbohydrate intake with inadequate nutrients. So rather than trying to eliminate fat from your child’s diet, focus on offering healthy fats! Saturated fat in whole milk, cheese, or coconut oil is different from the saturated fat found in pizza, fried foods, baked goods, and other processed meat products. Trans fat, is one type of fat you do want to avoid completely!
I personally am still serving whole-fat dairy to my 2-year-old. It definitely keeps him fuller for longer.
Best non-dairy milk?
As you can see in the milk comparison chart above, the best choices that will help meet your toddler’s nutritional needs are soy and pea milks. If it’s necessary for your child to consume milk other than these options, it may be helpful to consult with your pediatrician or a registered dietitian to make sure that your child is getting the adequate nutrition they need to for them to grow and thrive.
A brief note about soy
I get asked this question A LOT, so I thought it’s worth mentioning here. Many parents are concerned about serving soy products to their children due to fear that it may cause cancer or feminization in boys. It’s true that soy foods contain isoflavones (a phytoestrogen), which are similar to hormone estrogen in structure. However, phytoestrogen and estrogen are not the same, and they behave differently in the body.
In fact, there isn’t research to support soy’s negative impact on testosterone, but there is evidence that girls who eat soy at a young age may have a lower risk of breast cancer later in life.
All this to say, a moderate consumption of 1 to 2 servings of whole soy foods, such as tofu, soy milk, edamame, and soy nuts are deemed safe, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
A serving equals: 1 cup of soymilk, 1/2 cup of tofu, tempeh, or soybeans. Avoid processed soy products, like soy burgers, bars, etc.
Here are some things to keep in mind with non-dairy milk:
- Look at the ingredient list! Oftentimes these milk have a really long list. Shorter the better.
- Make sure to look for full fat, plain, and unsweetened option.
- Shake up the bottle really well before serving as the fortified nutrients settle to the bottom.
- Make sure it’s fortified with calcium (you’ll see it listed in the ingredient list either as calcium carbonate or tri-calcium phosphate. Choose the one with calcium carbonate as it’s more absorbable.) and vitamin D.
How much milk should a toddler drink?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 2-3 servings of dairy per day, or about 16 to a maximum of 24 ounces of milk per day. You can check out all the recommended portion sizes for each food group here.
When should a toddler drink milk?
Remember, milk is filling and so if offered throughout the day, it can sabotage their appetite and lead to grazing and not eating their meals. So the best time to drink milk is with their snacks/meals.
Does a toddler need to drink milk?
Yes and no. Milk is such a convenient way to provide the key nutrients that they need. However, as long as your child is getting the adequate amounts of protein, fat, calcium, and vitamin D through food, it’s not required.
Good dietary sources for:
- Fat: avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, eggs, oils (e.g. olive, avocado, coconut, sesame, walnut, canola), whole fat or 2% dairy products
- Protein: meats, poultry, fish, peas, beans, lentils, eggs, grains, nuts, seeds, cheese, yogurt
- Calcium: yogurt, cheese, green leafy vegetables (spinach, collards, kale), broccoli, cabbage, tofu and other soy products, beans, nuts and seeds, seafood/fish (with bones), fortified foods (e.g. cereals, bread), backstrap molasses
- Vitamin D: this is a challenging nutrient to meet from our diets so you may need to supplement if you’re not doing cow’s milk. It’s found in the flesh of the fatty fish (like salmon, tuna, mackerel), beef liver, cheese, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified foods like cheese, yogurt, and cereals.
The best milk for your child is one that will help meet your child’s nutritional, medical needs, and taste preferences.