I’m sure you’ve heard it by now. The general recommendation is to start your toddler on cow’s milk once they turn one. But what’s the deal with that? Why is that the recommendation for the best toddler milk, and do you really need to give them milk at all? Let’s dive into the details!
The Nutritional Needs of a One Year Old
As your baby grows and turns into a toddler, their diet will start to become more dependent on solid foods than liquid foods. For the first year of life, the most important thing for them to have is breastmilk, or formula. But once they turn one, milk starts to take a back seat to solid foods. By the time they’re two, solid foods are generally making up the bulk of their diet.
But that year in between is a bit of a transition. Kids aren’t often able to go from relying significantly on breastmilk or formula one day, to all of the sudden being able to get all of their calories from solid foods the next. And that’s where the recommendations for milk for toddlers come in.
The Best Milk to Give Toddlers
Between one to two years of age, most kids still need some form of liquid calories, protein, and other vitamins and minerals to help bridge the gap while they learn to rely more fully on solid foods. That time is also a time where many kids become selective with their food, and having something like milk to fall back on can be an important nutritional tool.
If you are still breastfeeding, you can continue to breastfeed as long as you and your child want. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until 2 years of age to help meet nutritional needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding until 1, and then for as long as mother and baby wish after that. If you are breastfeeding around 3-4 times a day once your child hits one, there is no need to start adding cow’s milk, or any other milk, too.
The Nutrients in Breastmilk
Breastmilk is optimized for children, and will provide much of the nutrition to bridge the gap that they need. If you are not offering a vitamin D fortified milk like cow's milk, though, keep in mind that you will need to supplement your child with vit D. You should also be mindful of getting calcium from other foods. Breastmilk has some calcium, and it is easily absorbable. But it doesn’t have enough to meet all of your child’s needs. If you do stop breastfeeding at any time before 2, I recommend looking at introducing another form of milk into your child’s diet.
If you are only able to give breastmilk 1 or 2 times a day, the need to introduce another milk is something that should be considered on a case by case basis. It depends on what other foods are in their diet and how much of them they’re eating. Are they getting other sources of dairy already, like yogurt? If they’re eating a good amount of solids and get other sources of dairy on top of it, there’s a good chance you’re ok and don’t need to introduce a milk. If the answer to either of these questions is no, it might be worth looking at doing a small amount of milk during the day to augment your breastmilk. Again, it’s really a case by case discussion.
If you stop breastfeeding at a year, or your child gets formula, the standard recommendation is to introduce cow’s milk at age 1. There’s no need to remain on formula or use a special toddler formula, a simple cow’s milk will provide all the nutrition that they need from milk.
Why Cow’s Milk?
Babies have a high need for fat in their diet to help with brain development and growth. Fat also helps to make calorically dense foods, which is important for a toddler’s relatively high energy needs compared to the size of their stomach. Milk also has protein, calcium, and is fortified with Vitamin D. Calcium and vitamin D are both things that are very important for kids, especially between the ages of 1 and 2. Cow’s milk has relatively good sources of protein, fat, and vitamins and minerals, in an easily drinkable form. There’s no other food or drink that is quite as easy for most kids to get down that has as good of a nutritional profile.
What's the Big Deal About Cow's Milk?
Over the last several years there has been a trend away from cow’s milk. A quick search of the internet will show you that many people are afraid that cow’s milk is full of a bunch of antibiotics and growth hormones, or that we shouldn’t be drinking another animal’s milk. While I won’t get into all the details, I will say that the body of evidence that is out there show’s that cow’s milk is perfectly safe for kids and humans in general. In fact, it show’s that it is indeed a food that can be vital for many kids, and can make up an important part of a balanced toddler diet. Cow's milk is of course not absolutely vital for toddlers, and there are other options. But after breast milk, it is by far the most complete and nutritionally sound option out there.
How Much Milk Should Toddlers Have?
The recommendation for dairy is 2 servings a day. That means 16oz, or 500ml, of milk. Giving more than that can actually impair iron levels in kids, and iron is one of our biggest concerns in kids across the board.
If your child doesn’t like to drink milk, there’s no need to force them or get stressed. Many kids will take some other form of dairy, like cheese or yogurt, which can help meet calcium, calorie, fat, and protein needs. They aren’t usually fortified with vitamin D, though, so if your child isn’t drinking milk make sure you’re talking with your pediatrician about the need for vitamin D supplementation.
What If My Toddler is Allergic to Milk?
If your child is allergic to milk, or you don’t want them to have cow’s milk, what should you do? Many people will recommend a soy milk based toddler formula for that time between 1 and 2 years of age. In the states at least, toddler formulas are full of all sorts of things that aren’t very desirable for kids, and they’re pretty expensive. So for that reason, I don’t really recommend going that route for the average toddler.
The Best Non Dairy Milk for Toddlers
First, the absolute best thing you can do is talk to a dietitian! They can help you get a plan together for whether your child even needs milk and what foods they need to have in their diet. An individualized plan based on your own circumstances is really the best way to go.
With that being said, there are some general guidelines out there. After cow’s milk, the next best readily available milks to help meet a toddler’s nutritional needs are soy and pea milks. They do not have the same amount of fat as breast milk or cow’s milk, and they are also lower in calories when choosing unsweetened versions. If choosing one of these, I recommend ensuring that your child is getting sufficient fat from food sources to help augment both fat and calories in these milks.
A New Toddler Milk Alternative
There is also a newer type of milk on the market, and it is a nut milk from Silk that is a combination of cashew and almond milk with added pea protein. While it is new and not always available, the nutritional profile on this milk looks great overall with a good amount of calories, protein and fat. However, it is fairly high in sodium and has a bit of added sugar. If giving it in the recommended 16 ounces per day, it will account for about half of the recommended sodium amounts (which are 800 mg) for a 1-2 year old. It does have 2g of added sugar, and while I don’t recommend any added sugar under 2, this small amount is doable if no other milk source is suitable for your child. Overall, this is a pretty decent option when cow’s milk is not.
The Nutrients in Different Milks for Toddlers
Take a look at this table giving you a breakdown of where milks fall in terms of vital toddler nutrients.
(whole, fortified with vit D)
Silk Nutmilk Original with 2g added sugar)
(Blue Diamond Unsweetened Vanilla)
(Pacific Foods Unsweetened)
(Quaker Oat Beverage Unsweetened)
(Pacific Foods Unsweetened)
Red text = nutrients of concern in a particular milk
As you can see in the table, other forms of milk, like almond, coconut, hemp, oat, and anything along those lines do not have adequate calories, protein, and fat to replace breast or cow’s milk. Using these kinds of milk will leave you giving something that is not optimized for your child, and doesn’t help cover the vital nutrients that they need for proper development and growth.
Every kid is going to be different. Some will need more help from a milk, others will be able to meet more of their needs with solid foods during the time between 1 and 2 years of age. Once they turn two, many toddlers don’t need to have milk at all, especially if you’re paying attention to the nutrients that are most important to them. It’s still an option after 2 for those kids that need a little extra help meeting their nutritional needs, though! If you have any doubt about what you should be giving your toddler, make sure you consult with a registered dietitian who can help to evaluate their diet and help you figure out a plan.