Milk: What You Should be Giving Your Kids

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Young girl drinking milk from sippy cup

Parents and caregivers have a lot of decisions on their plates while raising their babies. One topic that’s getting more attention is what type of milk to give growing children. The shelves at the grocery store are filled with rows and rows of options, but it’s not just the whole milk to skim dairy options. Now, there are dozens of types of non-dairy options including soy, almond and cashew milks. If your head is spinning, we’re here to help. Pediatrician David Rathe, DO, UnityPoint Health offers his advice.

The Best Milk for Kids

0 to 12 months: Breast milk is best for the first 12 months of life. If that’s not an option, make sure to use an infant formula with iron. It’s important to avoid dairy milk during these months because cow’s milk doesn’t provide enough of certain nutrients for babies, like iron, vitamin E and essential fatty acids. Dairy milk also has too much of certain things, such as protein, sodium and potassium, which at the available levels, are hard for babies to digest.

One to two years: After the child's first birthday, he/she can be transitioned to whole milk. This option is loaded with additional fat (four percent) that a child’s brain and nervous system needs while growing in size and complexity. After the one-year mark, parents can also opt to give their children non-dairy milks, if recommended by their doctor.

Two years and beyond: At 24 months and beyond, a child should be transitioned to lower fat milks like 2 percent, 1 percent or skim depending on family history, dietary needs and tolerance.

What’s a Daily Allotment?

While it’s important to give your kids milk, like most food items, there are suggested limits.

“Drinking 16 to 24 ounces of milk a day is plenty for a child over the age of 12 months,” Dr. Rathe says. “Too much milk can lead to constipation, iron deficiency and excess weight gain. Also, if a child overfills on milk, he/she may not get in other needed nutrients and fiber from other foods.”

It’s easy to go over this allotment if your child is a big fan of chocolate milk. While it can be given as a treat, Dr. Rathe says it’s best to keep amounts in check, too.

“Studies show that kids will drink the milk that is in front of them, white or chocolate. Chocolate milk contains more calories from sugar than white milk, so limiting the amount your child drinks is important,” Dr. Rathe says.

What about Raw Milk?

While it might seem like a good idea, Dr. Rathe suggest parents stay away from raw milk. It’s a product that comes straight from a cow, sheep or goat. Raw milk is unpasteurized, which means it’s not heated to kill germs and bacteria like Salmonella, E coli and Listeria. The Food and Drug Administration says pasteurizing milk does not reduce its nutritional value. In addition, Dr. Rathe also suggests staying away from other raw milk products including yogurt, ice cream and cheese.

Considering Non-Dairy Milks

As long as kids get the important nutrients that milk provides from other sources, it is OK if your child does not drink milk. Dr. Rathe says non-dairy milks have their place in the diets of children that are not able to digest cow’s milk, have milk allergies or certain diseases. Dr. Rathe says soy milk has the recommended amounts of protein, vitamin D, calcium and other nutrients for kids unable to drink dairy milk after the one-year mark. It’s also a good option for vegans. There is no recommendation or evidence for other flavored milks, like almond or rice milk, as alternatives.

“Whereas soy-based infant formulas are specifically designed for babies 0 to 12 months, it is not recommended to give soy milk to your child until after 12 months of age,” Dr. Rathe says.

With all these options at the grocery store, it’s easy to see why caregivers get confused. Milk is an inexpensive source of nutrients children and adults need, but it is no longer the only source. Over the years, we’ve seen some changes to the milk suggestions, and Dr. Rathe says we might continue to see fluctuations as researchers tackle this topic.

“Scientific research continues to try to solve the questions as to what are the best ways to get these nutrients, exactly how much of these we really need and at what ages they are important. At this point, we just do not have all the answers yet,” Dr. Rathe says.

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