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Nutrition, Tips / How-Tos, Toddlers

Got Milk? FAQs About Toddlers and Milk

Recently we looked at the process of transitioning from breast milk or formula to milk and what it means for you and your baby, from when to begin to how it might affect you and your emotions. In this follow-up post, we sat down with our pediatric dietitian to answer some commonly asked questions about your toddler and milk consumption.     

Why should my toddler drink milk?

Milk is a great source of calcium, which toddlers need for developing bones and teeth. Calcium also is important for muscle and nerve function. Milk is versatile as an ingredient: You can mix it in a pancake recipe, cook oatmeal in it instead of water or add it to a smoothie so that your toddler can reap the benefits of the calcium without always drinking milk on its own.

What is the difference between fat free, low-fat, reduced-fat and whole milk?

Milk is generally categorized by its percent of milk fat. The fat percentage refers to the percent of fat by weight. Whole milk has 3.5% milk fat, while reduced-fat milk has 2% milk fat and low-fat has 1% milk fat. Fat free, which is also called skim or nonfat milk, has less than 0.2% milk fat. The more fat content the milk has, the more creamier and heavier it tastes and feels.

How much milk should my toddler drink?

Toddlers need a lot less milk than commonly thought: Just 16 ounces of milk provides toddlers with their total daily calcium requirements. Milk, especially whole milk, is full of fat and protein, which keeps them full longer and gives them energy for their day.

Which kind of milk is right for my toddler?

Most children between the ages of 12 months to 2 years benefit from drinking whole milk for its fat content, since fat is essential for optimal brain and eye development. However, if your baby has been trending on a higher weight trajectory, your pediatrician might recommend starting with 2% milk.

If your toddler isn’t tolerant to regular cow’s milk, you may consider milk alternatives like almond, coconut and soy. Before purchasing, be sure to pay attention to the calcium content and added sugars. Dairy milk has about 300 milligrams of calcium in eight ounces, and milk alternatives often have much less than this. Similarly, dairy milk has natural occurring sugars whereas most sugars in milk alternatives are added. Skip the added sugars and opt for the unsweetened versions of your favorite milk alternative.

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If my toddler eats yogurt or cheese, should I reduce their milk intake?

Not necessarily: It depends on the nutritional content of the other dairy products your toddler is eating. Generally, yogurt is a supreme calcium source, containing more calcium per ounce than milk. Not all cheese, on the other hand, is not calcium-packed and contains a lot of fat, so it’s not a suitable substitute for milk.

What should I do if my toddler doesn’t like milk?

Don’t worry! Milk can easily be mixed in with other foods. It does not have to be consumed in a glass. Try preparing oatmeal with milk instead of water, make smoothies with milk or yogurt, or try it in a milk-based soup (one of our favorites is Pacific Foods Roasted Pepper & Tomato Soup). Yogurt is a great calcium-rich alternative to milk that provides similar nutritional benefits. Milk alternatives such as soy, almond and coconut milk can also be incorporated into your toddler’s diet.

Should my toddler take calcium supplements if they won’t drink milk?

As is the case with other nutrients, it’s best to rely on food rather than supplements. Calcium supplements are only partially absorbed—about 40%—so you’re better off encouraging your toddler to try other food sources of calcium, such as yogurt and cheese.

Should I let my toddler drink chocolate milk? If so, how often?

Research shows that for some children, the benefit of the calcium outweighs the risk of the added sugar. Just make sure the majority of the milk they drink isn’t flavored or sweetened—chocolate milk should still be considered a treat. As a general rule of thumb, try to avoid allowing flavored, sweetened beverages too frequently. Kids should learn to like drinks that are not sweet.

What are some alternatives to cow’s milk and what are their benefits?

There are many pros and cons to milk alternatives. Most importantly, it is essential that parents choose an alternative milk product that is appropriate for their specific child. For example, vegetarian diets may lack protein, so soy milk may be the best choice due to its high protein content. Hemp milk is high in omega 3 fatty acids, which may help with brain and eye health. Most importantly, it is essential that parents choose an alternative dairy product that is fortified with sufficient calcium and vitamin D.

Figuring out which milk is right for your growing toddler may take a bit of time as you research the nutritional values and flavors of dairy and non-dairy varieties. Whole milk is a great starting point for your toddler, unless your child is tending toward a higher weight trajectory. Yogurt is also a terrific calcium-dense option if your little one is averse to milk, and there are also plenty of milk alternatives if your family stays away from dairy altogether.

If you have other questions we may not of answered, we are here to help. Please reach out to us here.

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Lara Field at Nurture Life

Lara Field

Lara has been working with Nurture Life since its inception, collaborating with the culinary team on the creation of all menus and recipes to ensure they are nutritionally appropriate and correctly proportioned for every age and stage of a child’s development and providing pediatric nutrition expertise to Nurture Life customers. Lara is the owner/founder of FEED—Forming Early Eating Decisions, a nutrition consulting practice specializing in pediatric nutrition and digestive diseases. Lara has over a decade of experience in clinical practice at two of the top ranked pediatric hospitals in the country, Lurie Children’s Hospital and University of Chicago Medical Center. Lara received her B.S. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and M.S. and dietetic internship from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois. Lara truly enjoys the process of eating (and feeding!), from procuring the ingredients at various grocery stores and farmers markets, to organizing her pantry/refrigerator at home to make it easy to select healthy options, to preparing balanced meals with her children. Whether it be a decadent treat to a hearty, home-cooked meal, there is no greater satisfaction for Lara than enjoying food with her family.