Table of Contents
- Do toddlers need milk?
- How much milk should toddlers drink?
- Non-Dairy Milk for Toddlers: Yes or No?
- What’s the best kind of milk for toddlers?
- When should toddlers & kids drink milk?
- What’s the deal with hormones in milk?
- Conventional vs. Organic
I get questions about milk for toddlers all. the. time! (Btw – this post was reviewed and updated September 2022.)
With dairy alternatives becoming more and more popular, parents are starting to wonder about the best options for their kids. And since I know a lot of you guys are wondering, I was super happy to write up a post all about milk for toddlers.
Before we get started, I want you to know that your child can be completely healthy both with or without cow’s milk. It’s more of a personal preference for what’s best for them and for your family, and whatever choice you make is totally okay.
With that in mind, I made sure to include key information about both milk and milk alternatives, so that you can feel good about whatever option is right for your littles.
More Posts on Milk Topics
What to Do if Your Toddler isn’t Drinking Cow’s Milk (Nutrition & Drinking Tips)
Soy Milk for Toddlers: Is it Bad?
Almond Milk: Should my toddler drink it?
1. Do toddlers need milk?
In short? No.
Milk is an awesome source of protein, fat, vitamin D, and calcium, but it’s not the only way toddlers can get those nutrients. If your little one doesn’t drink cow’s milk, you’ll just want to find other sources of those same nutrients that they like to eat (or drink).
Many children do not get the recommended amount of vitamin D and calcium daily. You can use a vitamin D supplement like D Drops, which are fine to use past baby age. (Just a head’s up- this is an affiliate link!)
You’ll want to look to other calcium rich foods to replace that found in cow’s milk. Some ideas:
Fortified orange juice
Non-dairy cheese and yogurt also often contain calcium, but check labels to be sure!
2. How much milk should toddlers drink?
I recommend 16-20 oz (around 2 to 2.5 cups per day) of milk for toddlers, and no more than 3-4 servings a day.
By 18 months, you should move from a bottle to a straw cup or open cup for milk. My favorites are here.
One serving of dairy for a toddler is:
- ½ cup milk
- ⅓ cup yogurt
- ½ oz cheese (a cheese stick is 1 oz)
If your toddler is drinking 2-2.5 cups of milk a day, they won’t need any additional dairy on top of that. For some children, too much dairy leads to constipation.
If your toddler is only drinking 1 cup (or less) of milk a day, they’re probably not getting the recommended amount of calcium. You’ll want to include other calcium-rich foods from the list above in their diet.
If your toddler is drinking more than 2.5 cups of milk a day, you’ll want to cut back. Too much milk can crowd out other important nutrients from their diet. It can also contribute to iron deficiency, both because milk actually decreases iron absorption and because it can crowd out iron-rich foods.
3. Non-Dairy Milk for Toddlers: Yes or No?
It’s totally okay if your child doesn’t drink cow’s milk! Like I mentioned before, you’ll just want to make sure they get the nutrients found in cow’s milk in other ways.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the best non-dairy milk alternative for toddlers is fortified soy milk. Although American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) only recommends fortified soy milk as a nutritional equivalent to cow’s milk, I personally see unsweetened pea milk (like Ripple) as a close second. I also like the Silk Protein Almond Cashew Blend.
TIP: Look for non-dairy milk that has calcium carbonate instead of calcium triphosphate.
Calcium carbonate is better absorbed by the body. And another reason to check: some non-dairy milks are actually not fortified with calcium at all!
Wondering about almond milk in particular? I wrote a whole post about it, which you can read here!
4. What’s the best kind of milk for toddlers?
Whole, 2%, 1%, or skim? I get asked all the time!
Up until your toddler is 2 years old, I recommend whole milk exclusively. That’s because the fat content is great for your young toddler’s brain and central nervous system growth and development.
Once they turn two, it’s really up to you. Personally, I still serve whole milk, because the fat content keeps my kids fuller longer.
The AAP also recommends avoiding flavored milks to minimize added sugar in your toddler’s diet, and to avoid having them develop preferences for extra sweet tastes.
And if you’re worried about it, it’s good to know that the link between saturated fat (the type of fat found in dairy) and heart disease is not as strong as people once thought it to be. I’m totally comfortable serving whole milk products to my kids!
5. When should toddlers & kids drink milk?
It’s always best to consume milk with meals, for a few reasons:
Your toddler’s body does a better job of absorbing the nutrients in milk with food than it does when drinking milk without eating.
From a habits perspective, I prefer to see milk served with meals vs. as a comfort item that they carry around with them.
It’s better for teeth to keep milk with meals as opposed to having your toddler drinking it all day long.
6. What’s the deal with hormones in milk?
Most dairy cows (both organic and conventional) are no longer injected with hormones. You may see your milk carton says “rBST-free,” or “rBGH-free,” which means the cows never received any type of growth hormone. There are very few farmers who still use these hormones, and the hormones are being completely phased out of use.
Hormones have kind of a bad rap, but it’s because they get lumped in with something called Insulin-Like Growth Factor, or IGF, which is found in milk. Cows that get hormone treatments do have more IGF, but because IGF is found in both animal and soy protein sources, we know that milk is not the problem.
It’s also worth noting that dairy itself is not shown to be a cancer risk, but excess protein MIGHT be (the research is still inconclusive). So, if your child loves cow’s milk, or you want them to have it, go ahead and serve it! This research tells us it’s more about making sure we have a balanced diet than anything else.
7. Conventional vs. Organic
The FDA guidelines for organic milk state that the cows have not been treated with antibiotics, must never be given hormones ― for either reproduction or growth ― and have been fed at least 30 percent of their diet on pasture.
Non-organic, or conventional cows, are typically not given hormones either, but they are technically allowed to.
As far as antibiotics go, cows on conventional farms must have the antibiotics out of their system before their milk is usable again.
Tara Vander Dussen of NewMexicoMilkMaid.com is a conventional dairy farmer and explained to me, “Cows on non-organic (or conventional) dairies are treated with the highest level of care. And their health is our priority. The healthier a cow is the more milk she will produce and the higher the quality of milk.”
“If our cows get sick, we treat them with antibiotics prescribed by our vet who comes to our dairy once a week for herd check. While the cow is receiving antibiotics and even after she has completed her dose during the withholding period, she is milked separately and her milk never enters the food supply.”
“There are many checks and balances in place to ensure milk from cows treated with antibiotics never leaves our farm. Every single tanker of milk is tested for antibiotics and quality before it leaves our farm.”
How to learn about conventional dairy farms near you
Tara of NewMexicoMilkMaid.com highly recommends “finding a dairy farmer whether that be in your local area or on social media and asking them your questions and learning more about their farms! There are so many farmers like me on social media, sharing our stories.”
“And one fun fact…most milk on the shelf comes from a family farm within 100 miles! If you are looking to buy local and support local farmers, milk is a great option!”
You can find Tara on Instagram @newmexicomilkmaid.
A Note for Concerned Parents:
A healthy diet can be one that does or does not contain cow’s milk. As always, you have to do what is best for your family and your child’s individual needs and preferences.
Kids do not need to drink cow’s milk in order to be healthy, and drinking it doesn’t mean that they’re NOT healthy!
What goes better with milk than cereal?
Okay, maybe cookies. Maybe.
But seriously! If you’re thinking about the best milks to serve your child, I think you’d also love this FREE Low Sugar Cereal Guide for Toddlers.
April · October 18, 2021 at 9:42 pm
My 13 month old drinks about 15oz of whole milk per day (usually three 5oz bottles). He does also consume 1 or 2 servings of additional dairy (cheese in the form of a cheese stick, Mac and cheese, or grilled cheese etc) or yogurt per day although we have cut back. Some days a few of his bowel movements have become small pellets and he seems to be straining. I believe it’s from too much dairy? If I give him 15 oz of whole milk – should I not be offering any other dairy? If I offer Mac and cheese or grilled cheese should I cut one bottle? Having trouble navigating when to offer whole milk and how much – and if this may be causing constipation in my son
Mama Knows Nutrition · October 25, 2021 at 12:44 pm
Hey April! I am so sorry you’re struggling with that! You can definitely try to cut back on dairy to see if it makes a difference, but also check out this post on constipation to see what else to avoid or limit and what foods to increase to help! https://mamaknowsnutrition.com/foods-to-help-with-constipation-in-toddlers/
Taylor · July 12, 2021 at 2:42 pm
What about hormones in soy milk? Estrogen issues?
Rachel · July 12, 2021 at 9:02 am
My son has a dairy protein allergy which is why we choose Ripple (pea protein) he’s been drinking it since he was a year old. He recently turned 4 and has started throwing his milk back up. He only throws up the milk. Any ideas what this could be from? We’ve just stopped giving it to him.
Sophie · May 20, 2021 at 1:32 pm
First of all this is amazing!!! Thank you for writing this up for all of us! Can goat milk apply to what you’ve written?
Anna · January 19, 2021 at 8:18 am
Hello hello I have a few questions
-I’m a SAH mom and I pump only at night (mostly fore milk). When my LO is a year can’t I add a liquid Calcium and Vitamin D&K supplement to the breast milk instead of giving her cow’s milk?
-what’s you professional opinion on goat’s milk?
Mama Knows Nutrition · January 19, 2021 at 9:54 am
Hey Anna! Yep you could do that, continuing the breastmilk in place of cows milk. Goat’s milk can be easier to digest and has a similar nutrient profile to cows milk, so I would recommend it if you’d like to try it!
John · May 29, 2020 at 10:43 pm
Is estrogen looped into the hormone analysis? Because it’s a “natural” hormone it may not Have been checked as much, so can a cow get pumped with 3x, 4x, 5x the natural amount and then it’s ok for children?
In terms of farms, I wish there were more Farms like the one You mentioned- that’s not the norm.
Animal cruelty not mentioned at all – toddlers should maybe watch the process and then be asked if they want the milk. Thoughts there?
Sarah · March 9, 2020 at 9:41 pm
What about all the concern regarding soy and hormone disruption? Is this actually studied?
Mama Knows Nutrition · March 10, 2020 at 9:26 pm
Hey Sarah! This piece from Harvard does a great job summarizing the info around soy! https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/soy/
Tara Attman · February 7, 2020 at 7:17 am
Hi! This is SO helpful thank you! A few questions regarding my 13.5 month old 🙂
-if he doesn’t finish his cup of milk at his meal, do I offer it again with his next snack or stick with water for snacks and just incorporate more dairy foods into his next meal time to make up for lost ounces?
-should all snacks take place in his highchair if possible instead of on the living room floor?
-my son likes almost every food but will only feed himself the first few bites and then gets distracted? I then have to continue to put food in his mouth to make sure he eats, or give him something like a lid to play with to distract him, or both :O I hope I’m not messing him up too bad 🤣 any tips?
THANK YOU SO MUCH, I feel so lost.
Mama Knows Nutrition · February 7, 2020 at 11:03 am
Hey Tara, if he doesn’t finish his milk you can re-offer at snack time, that’s fine! I do prefer snacks to be in the highchair vs. the floor (mostly to prevent choking hazard- if he’s on the floor he’s more likely to be moving around). As for getting distracted, I would sit with him and give him a break for a minute or two, maybe talk to him or sing a song or something, and then re-direct him to his food. But when he’s no longer interested in feeding himself, it could be a sign that he’s not very hungry anymore, so I would just pay attention to that. He may be done after a few bites, and that would be okay. Hard for me to know without being there myself though, of course! And you’re not messing him up, you’re doing great! It’s hard and none of us are perfect in this feeding journey 🙂
JoAnna · November 7, 2019 at 7:23 am
Would you recommend 16-20oz of a non-dairy milk (pea protein) a day as well? Thanks!
Mama Knows Nutrition · November 7, 2019 at 12:54 pm
Hi yep the same amount 🙂
Melinda · January 29, 2020 at 9:18 pm
Thanks for this!!
How do you feel about Oat Milk? Also, how does breastmilk beyond 1 year compare to cows milk or non dairy milk? Would they still get enough calcium/vitamin D depending on how many ounces they drink?
Mama Knows Nutrition · January 30, 2020 at 10:04 am
Oat milk is okay to use like for baking or on occasion but it’s not a good replacement for cows milk or breast milk, it doesn’t have the same nutrition. As for breastmilk beyond 1 year, it’s amazing, but they would need a vitamin D supplement (regardless of how much they drink) because breastmilk is not a good source of vitamin d. Hope that helps!