What your child drinks plays a key role in their health, and today, parents seem to have more choices than ever. Milk sections in grocery stores have expanded to offer an increasing number of options including many dairy alternatives. While this can be helpful to families with food allergies or intolerances, it can also make it challenging to know what's the best milk for your child.
"Milk is an important part of a child's diet due to its nutrient content to help develop healthy bones, regulate blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight," says Otoniel Santiago, a clinical dietitian with Get Up & Go by Children's Health℠ supported by Kohl's Cares. "Many plant-based milks do not match dairy's essential nutrients so it's important for parents to understand their options."
Learn more about the benefits of milk for children and the differences between dairy (cow's milk) and plant-based milk alternatives.
What is plant-based milk?
Plant-based milk refers to non-dairy milk options, which can be made from a variety of plants, nuts or seeds. Common plant-based milks include:
- Soy milk
- Almond milk
- Oat milk
- Coconut milk
- Pea milk
- Rice milk
While the popularity of plant-based milk is growing, many of these dairy alternatives vary in terms of protein and other nutrients. Some plant-based milks are fortified with vitamins; others are sweetened with added sugars. It's important to check labels to understand each product's nutritional value.
Why is milk important for children?
Dairy milk has essential nutrients that support a child's growing body, including:
- High-quality protein
- Calcium (supports bone health)
- Potassium (helps maintain healthy blood pressure)
- Vitamin D (supports bone health and heart health)
- Vitamin B12 (builds red blood cells)
- Vitamin A (improves the immune system)
- Phosphorus (supports bone health)
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin, which converts food into energy)
- Vitamin B3 (niacin, which converts food into energy)
Many children have lower levels of vitamin D, a nutrient that the body makes naturally from sun exposure. Children with low levels of vitamin D, especially during the younger years, can be exposed to a condition called rickets (softening of the bones) and poor growth. Cow's milk is one of the best ways to replenish this vitamin and plays an important role in keeping your child healthy.
Dairy milk vs. plant-based milk: Which milk is best for children?
A panel including the American Academy of Pediatrics released recommendations stating that children under the age 5 should avoid plant-based milks. Unless a child has dietary restrictions, cow's milk is recommended for children ages 12 months and older to help supply protein, calcium, vitamin D and other nutrients.
"Cow's milk has key essential nutrients that are not matched in plant-based alternatives," Santiago explains. "When comparing nutrient content such as protein and calcium, ounce per ounce, dairy is the best milk choice for children."
One exception is for children with a dairy intolerance or allergy, or for families with a dietary preference such as eating vegan due to religious or lifestyle beliefs. For children who need an alternative to cow's milk, soy milk is the best plant-based milk choice.
For dairy milk and plant-based milk alike, parents should avoid offering children milks that are flavored, as these contain added sugars. Parents are also advised to avoid other sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, juices and sports drinks – and opt for water and plain, pasteurized milk instead.
How much milk do children need?
Cow's milk should not be introduced before 1 year of age. Once a child begins drinking milk, the best milk is plain, pasteurized cow's milk. Whole-fat milk is recommended for children up until age 2, unless you are advised to switch to low-fat milk sooner for reasons such as family history or risk of heart disease or obesity.
While each child's nutritional needs may vary, the following amounts of milk are recommended to support a child's growth and development:
- Newborns (0-12 months) – before the age of 12 months, a child should drink breast milk or infant formula
- 12-24 months – whole dairy milk, up to two to three cups a day
- 2-3 years – skim or low-fat dairy milk, up to two cups a day
- 4-8 years – skim or low-fat dairy milk, up to two and a half cups a day
- 9-18 years – skim or low-fat dairy milk, up to three cups a day
If your child is diagnosed with a milk allergy, has a problem digesting lactose (the sugar in milk) or has other dietary restrictions, talk to your child's pediatrician or a registered dietitian to ensure your child is receiving the nutrients needed to stay healthy.
Learn more about healthier habits for your family with pediatric weight management programs that include Get Up & Go, COACH, bariatrics and nutrition clinics.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.