Filling your toddler’s bottle with milk after their 1st birthday is a pretty standard practice in the Western world.
But to adults — who may not load up on milk as a beverage of choice themselves — the sheer amount of cow’s milk toddlers are supposed to drink can seem like, well, a lot.
Especially with the rise of vegan and plant-based diets, many parents find themselves questioning the necessity of all that milk for their young children.
After all, most of us have probably heard the adage that, just like human milk is for baby humans, cow’s milk is for baby cows.
So does milk really do a toddler body good?
Here’s a look at the right amount, the health benefits, and the alternatives to cow’s milk for kids ages 1 to 3.
Judging from the sheer array of beverages marketed to young children (the juices! the electrolyte replacements! the probiotic drinks!) it may seem like there’s a veritable smorgasbord of appropriate options for sippy cup sipping.
However, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), water and milk are the only two best beverages for very young children.
The AAP recommends toddlers 12 to 24 months consume 2–3 cups (16–24 ounces) of whole milk per day and children ages 2 to 5 years drink 2–2.5 cups (16–20 ounces) of low fat or skim milk per day.
What’s the deal with all that milk, and why the emphasis on full fat dairy for younger toddlers?
It all boils down to its content of certain nutrients critical for growth and development.
“Whole milk is recommended for kids 2 and under because of the calcium, fat, and protein found in it,” said dietitian Yaffi Lvova, RDN, of Baby Bloom Nutrition in Phoenix, Arizona.
“The amounts recommended reflect calcium, fat, and protein needs during this time of rapid growth and development,” Lvova added.
Additionally, fortified milk serves up extra vitamin D — which, combined with calcium, helps build strong, healthy bones in children.
However, Lvova points out that even the high amounts of vitamin D in milk may not suffice for your child’s needs at this age. “Supplementation is still encouraged by the AAP,” she noted.
Given the green light to include milk in your toddler’s diet, you may be doing the happy dance — because, hey, it’s an easy go-to drink that’s a lot less expensive than formula.
But can your kiddo go hog wild (or, uh, cow wild) with sipping on the stuff all day, or is there a limit to how much milk they should consume?
According to Lvova, there can be too much of a good thing.
“While it’s important for a child to get enough calcium, fat, and protein, it is also possible to overdo it with milk consumption,” she said.
For one thing, a tummy full of milk can mean a nose turned up at other nutritious foods. “Milk can be filling, and too much can reduce a child’s appetite, preventing them from being interested in food during mealtime,” Lvova explained.
Plus, overconsuming milk can interfere with your child’s ability to properly make use of certain nutrients.
“Too much calcium and casein, a milk protein, can block appropriate absorption of iron, causing iron deficiency anemia,” said Lvova.
You can avoid these issues by capping your child’s milk consumption at the recommended 24 ounces per day.
To hit the milky sweet spot, Lvova suggests offering milk only at the table at mealtimes, and only offering water between meals.
Whole milk, with its high fat content, is the beverage of choice for children 12 to 24 months.
Typically, your child can join the big leagues and move to low fat or nonfat milk when they reach their 2nd birthday.
However, some children with a lower weight or other medical issues may be advised to stay on whole milk longer.
On the other hand, if there’s a family history of certain medical conditions like heart disease, you may be advised to use reduced fat milk (2 percent) in a child under 2 years old.
Talk with your pediatrician about what’s best for your child, before switching from whole milk to any reduced or low fat milk.
You can go ahead and ask (we won’t judge!): Does my kid actually need milk?
In short, no, milk itself isn’t the ultimate key to your child’s healthy growth and development. Plenty of children have grown up without drinking it.
Instead, it’s the mix of nutrients milk provides that make it such an ideal beverage for children under 5.
If no ethical or physical impediment exists, milk makes a natural choice that’s nutritious, easily accessible, and inexpensive for most families.
On the other hand, if cow’s milk isn’t an option for your child, with a little creativity, it’s certainly possible to provide the nutrition they need.
“If a toddler is being raised in a dairy-free environment due to allergies or family food choices, they can make up their nutrition needs in other ways,” said Lvova. “Calcium can be found in certain vegetables, and fat and protein are found in many places.”
To ensure adequate calcium in your toddler’s diet, try offering salmon, dark leafy greens, or fortified cereals.
Finally, experts don’t advise turning to alternative milks to replace cow’s milk. Their lack of protein and nutrients can’t compare with dairy milk for the nutrition profile your growing child needs.
Fortified soy milk may be an exception, but always clear this with your pediatrician before diving in.
Not sure how to tailor your toddler’s diet to their nutrient needs? Sitting down with a dietitian can make a world of difference.
“Consultation with a pediatric registered dietitian can help parents feel confident in the choices they make for their families,” Lvova said.
Milk provides tons of excellent nutrition — but it’s only one part of a toddler’s healthy diet.
Just like adults, kids at this age require a balance of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
When it comes to carbs, focus on the complex varieties that will fill your child up and prevent constipation. Sources of these beneficial carbs include:
- whole grains
Lean proteins, such as fish, turkey, chicken, eggs, and tofu can comprise the protein portion of your kiddo’s plate. Plant oils, seeds, nuts, and nut butters (and, to a lesser extent, cheese and yogurt) are all healthy fat sources.
- Breakfast: 1/2 cup oatmeal with 1/4 cup blueberries and 1 tsp. brown sugar, plus 1 cup milk
- Snack: 1 hard-boiled egg
- Lunch: 1/2 turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with veggies (avocado, sprouts, tomato, or cucumbers), 1/2 banana, 1 cup milk
- Snack: 1–2 graham crackers with 2 tbsp. applesauce
- Dinner: 2-oz. shredded or cut-up meat, 1/4 cup starch (such as mashed potatoes or rice), 2–4 tbsp. vegetables (such as peas, asparagus, or spinach), 1 cup milk
As a grownup, milk may not be your personal beverage of choice, but it’s a highly nutritious (and blessedly simple) staple for toddlers.
Getting the recommended 2 to 3 cups per day provides important nutrients that promote your little one’s healthy growth.