Milk for Toddlers: Answering All Your Questions on Cow’s Milk, Non-Dairy Alternatives & Hormones
I get questions about milk for toddlers all. the. time!
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. Take a read through, and if you still have questions, feel free to get in touch!
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.
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.
The best non-dairy milk alternative for toddlers is fortified soy milk (but I like pea milk, too!). The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) actually only recommends fortified soy milk as a nutritional equivalent to cow's milk, but I personally see pea milk as a close second.
TIP: Look for non-dairy milk 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!
And again, if you have any questions, feel free to get in touch! I love to hear from you guys.
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.