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  • Denise Scott

Why Children Should Drink Milk and Which Milk to Choose

Do children really need milk?

Calcium and vitamin D are crucial for children to develop healthy bones and teeth. Milk provides one of the best sources of these nutrients. Vitamin D helps with calcium absorption. Calcium is also vital for heart, muscle, and nerve function. Children who don’t, or can’t, drink milk typically need to be supplemented with calcium and vitamin D since it is difficult to obtain these required nutrients if dairy is not part of the diet.

Young child drinking milk

Milk provides:

  • Protein

  • Calcium

  • Phosphorous

  • Vitamin D

  • Vitamin A

  • Potassium

  • B vitamins

Drinking milk during childhood can protect against rickets and osteoporosis later.

What are the different types of milk?

There are numerous sources of milk. Pictured here are oat, rice, and nut milks.

Milk can come from animal or plant sources. 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 include lactose-free, hormone-free, A2, and organic.

Although these can all be sources of calcium and vitamin D (if fortified), the protein content and other nutrient content can vary. Some are sweetened with added sugar. Reading labels is a way to compare the nutritional value of each.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend plant-based milk for children under the age of 5; they promote the use of cow’s milk. They also recommend that milk, other than breast milk or formula, not be introduced until a year of age. Other forms of dairy, such as whole-fat Greek yogurt can be introduced at 6 months.

There are exceptions to using cow's milk based on dietary restrictions, such as milk allergy or intolerance. For these children, a plant-based milk is the recommended option. About half of babies with a cow milk protein allergy may also react to soy. Some babies that are diagnosed with cow's milk allergy as an infant will be able to tolerate cow's milk after a year, but this should be guided by your child's pediatrician or allergist. Choose unflavored, unsweetened, vitamin D fortified milk, with the highest fat content.

When comparing the nutrient value, ounce per ounce, dairy ranks higher than plant-based milk based on protein content and other vitamins.

The AAP also recommends avoiding flavored milk, added sugars, and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Another factor is the fat content. Children should be on whole milk until age two, after which they can be switched to a lower-fat option. Many plant-based milks do not have the fat content of dairy.

Children should not be given raw or unpasteurized milk due to potentially harmful bacteria. Raw milk can come from a cow, goat, or sheep and has not been heated to kill germs. Prior to pasteurization, these milks can contain harmful amounts of E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella, which can cause serious gastrointestinal illnesses. Children and pregnant women are at greater risk.

How much milk do kids need?

For the first year of life, infants should be on breast milk or formula. The recommendation is not to introduce cow’s milk before a year.

At a year, milk can be introduced and should be whole, pasteurized milk. Ages one to two, 2-3 cups* a day should be given. As stated in previous posts, more than 3 cups or 24 ounces increases the risk of constipation and iron deficiency anemia.

After age 2, children can be switched to low-fat or skim milk. For ages 2-8, two to two-and-a half cups a day meet their calcium and vitamin D needs.

Ages 9-18 should drink about 3 cups daily.

*The guidelines refer to 2-3 cups of dairy, which includes milk, yogurt, and cheese.

Children in puberty who don’t drink enough milk should be supplemented with calcium and vitamin D. These needs increase during puberty and the growth spurt.

This age group (9-18) needs 1300 mg of calcium and 600-800 IU of vitamin D daily.

Dairy intake includes milk, cheese, and yogurt.

What about A2 milk?

Recently, A2 milk has been on the market and promoted as easier to digest. A2 refers to beta-casein, the predominant protein in milk. Beta-casein makes up about 80% of milk protein, with the other 20% being whey. Some milk has both A1 and A2 beta-casein because some cows produce A1 and A2 proteins or only A2. Besides that, the milk is the same, reportedly with the same amount of lactose. (Lactose refers to the sugar or carbohydrate in milk, so it is not affected by the type of beta-casein protein). Research has not yet shown whether one is superior, although some people feel they have fewer digestive symptoms with A2.

Should I buy organic milk or hormone-free milk?

Organic 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. What to buy is a personal preference. Organic milk tends to be more expensive, as is most organic produce. Milk from range-fed cows, without added hormones or antibiotics, is preferable. As with most foods, the fewer additives, the better.

Range or grass-fed cattle is preferable for milk and meat sources.

Should you have concerns about your child’s milk intake or which milk to choose, discuss with your child’s doctor. To summarize, there are differences in the nutrient content among the various kinds of milk. Be sure your child gets enough milk and dairy to promote healthy bones as they grow.

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