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  • Denise Scott

Milk - When? How Much? Which Kind?

Once your baby is a year old, they can transition from breast milk or formula to regular milk per the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations. Before a year, babies can’t digest milk well since the protein and minerals in cow’s milk are more than an infant’s kidneys and intestines can handle. Cow’s milk has a higher protein concentration than baby formula and can lead to iron deficiency and bleeding in the intestines.

Photo of a toddler being poured a cup of milk.

Mixing milk with breast milk or formula (50/50) can transition the taste. You can also offer milk by itself in a sippy cup. Sometimes, warming the milk slightly or to room temperature is helpful. If your baby takes milk from the sippy cup, it is easier to get off the bottle.

You can begin offering milk while finishing any formula or when weaning from the breast. As nursing is decreased, the amount of milk can be increased. Unlike infant formula or breast milk, which have been the primary source of calories during infancy, cow’s milk is not a toddler’s primary nutrition source.

Young girl in a strength pose holding a cup of milk, showing the benefits of milk which include promoting growth, and strengthening bones and teeth.

What Are the Benefits of Drinking Milk?

  • Milk provides calories, protein, and nutrients, contributing to a child’s growth.

  • Milk is a primary source of calcium and vitamin D, which helps to build strong bones and teeth. Children who don’t get enough calcium and vitamin D during childhood are at risk for osteopenia and osteoporosis later (thinning of the bones). 

  • Milk has other vitamins and minerals, such as potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and B12, which support bones and a healthy immune system.

What About Toddler Formulas?

Toddler formulas offer no nutritional benefits over milk according to the AAP. These formulas don’t have the protein content of cow’s milk, may have added sugar and salt, and are not FDA-regulated. Similar to “toddler snacks”, most are a marketing gimmick.

What is the Best Milk to Choose?

According to the AAP, whole or 2% cow’s milk is recommended due to the balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. The AAP does not recommend plant-based milks for children under five. Nor does it recommend using milk with less than 2% fat until after age two. The brain is still developing during toddlerhood and requires extra fat in the diet.

Children with a proven milk allergy or intolerance should use plant-based milk. In that situation, either soy or pea-protein milk is recommended. Some babies with a cow’s milk protein allergy will also react to soy products. Which milk to use should be guided by your pediatrician or allergist. 

Children with a true milk allergy are likely to outgrow it.

Unflavored, unsweetened, vitamin D-fortified milk, with the highest fat content, is advised. Read labels to look for no added flavors or sugar. Also, ensure the pasteurization of any animal-based milk.

What About Other Non-dairy Milks?

Image of a variety of plant-based, non-dairy milks, including milk from almonds, flax, oats, soy, and coconut.

Milk can come from animal or plant sources, including nuts, fruit, grains, and other plants. Milk varieties include:

  • Cow’s milk

  • Goat milk

  • Sheep milk

  • Soy milk

  • Almond milk

  • Oat milk

  • Coconut milk

  • Pea milk

  • Rice milk

  • Flax milk

  • Hemp milk

  • Cashew milk

Cow’s milk choices also vary, and include lactose-free, hormone-free, A2, and organic.

Most plant milk alternatives are not recommended for young children because they are lower in protein, calcium, and vitamin D than cow’s milk.

Should I Buy Organic Milk? A2 Milk?

Organic-certified milk does not contain any synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, or growth hormones; hormone-free is free of only growth hormones. The nutrient content is the same, whether organic or non-organic. The fewer additives to your milk, the better, but organic is more expensive and has to work with your budget.

The most crucial option is pasteurized milk. Children should not have raw or unpasteurized milk. Pasteurization kills harmful bacteria that can cause serious illnesses.

A2 refers to the predominant type of protein in cow's milk. There are two primary proteins in milk: beta-casein and whey. A1 and A2 are different types of the casein protein. Some cows produce A1 and A2, while others only make A2 protein. The difference comes from the breed of the cow, there is no modification made to the milk. The lactose (carbohydrate) content is the same in each. Research has not shown an advantage of one over the other.

How Much Milk Should My Toddler Drink?

The following recommendations are for dairy intake:

Ages Cups of Daily Dairy*

1-2 1 ⅔ - 2 ½

2-8 2 - 2 ½

9-18 3

*Dairy refers to milk, yogurt, and cheese. These daily amounts meet their calcium and vitamin D needs.

Excess cow’s milk, more than 20-24 ounces daily, can lead to constipation, iron deficiency, and anemia. The calcium in milk competes with iron for absorption.

After age two, a child can drink low-fat or fat-free milk. 

What if My Toddler Won’t Drink Milk?

There are many dietary sources of calcium and vitamin D you can give your child while continuing to offer milk. 

Calcium sources:

  • Cheese

  • Yogurt

  • Greens and leafy vegetables (spinach, beets, turnips, kale, collard greens)

  • Soy products

  • Dried figs

  • Navy beans

  • Chickpeas

  • Macaroni and cheese

  • Pudding

  • Tofu

  • Calcium-fortified cereal

Sources of calcium other than dairy shown here including grains, legumes, nuts, dried fruit, and greens.

Vitamin D foods:

  • Seafood, like salmon or sardines 

  • Egg yolks

  • Beef liver

  • Yogurt

  • Vitamin D-fortified cereals

  • Vitamin D-fortified juices (juice should be limited due to the sugar content)

Picture of dietary sources of vitamin D including seafood, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and mushrooms.

Milk and dairy are the primary sources of calcium and vitamin D in childhood, and adequate amounts will protect their bones for the future. If your child won’t take dairy, discuss with their doctor whether a supplement is needed. 

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