Milk for kids: what parents need to know

How much milk should a young child/toddler drink?

By the time your little one is 12 months old, you’ll be able to add cow’s milk or milk substitutes to their diet. If you wish to continue breastfeeding you may do so, but your child will need less milk as they start to enjoy other foods. Going forward, your child should be enjoying three meals a day with perhaps a couple of snacks. Meals should be made up of a variety of foods including a minimum of:
  • Four servings of starchy carbs like potatoes, pasta, bread or rice a day
  • Four servings of fruit and vegetables a day
  • One serving of animal protein such as meat, fish and eggs or two of plant-based proteins such as beans and lentils a day
  • 350ml of whole milk or two portions of dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt or fromage frais a day

Why is milk a nutritious choice & what type of milk is best?

During periods of rapid growth, your child’s nutrient needs will be high. Cow’s milk is a nutrient-dense food and an excellent source of many of the nutrients a child needs to support their overall development. For example, cow’s milk is a good source of B vitamins including vitamin B12, which supports red blood cells and B2 which helps convert food into energy. Whole milk and other dairy foods supply the macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates), whilst also being a source of important minerals like calcium and phosphorus – these help children build strong bones and teeth.

The fat in whole milk provides important calories for young children. This is vital because youngsters don’t have the capacity to consume large quantities of food but need nutrient-packed options to meet their needs.

It’s not necessary for the rest of the family to drink whole milk, you can still use lower-fat milks in cooking as long as you use whole for your toddler’s drinks and snacks. Once your child reaches two, you can introduce semi-skimmed milk provided they are eating well and are growing at the right pace for their age. Skimmed milk is not recommended until they are over five years old.

Full-fat dairy has other benefits – it supplies vitamin A. This fat-soluble vitamin promotes growth and helps the body build strong mucous membranes, which is essential to help fight infections. Vitamin A is also needed for healthy skin and eyes.

What do I do if my child doesn’t like milk?

There are other options if your child doesn’t like milk, but be aware that most milk substitutes are lower in protein and fat, as well as calcium, unless fortified. These nutrients may be obtained from other foods; for example, in calcium-fortified cereals, dried fruit and dark green leafy vegetables. Seeds and nuts are also useful sources of calcium but because of the risk of choking, offer them as nut butters, tahini or ground and added to cereals or bakes. Most toddlers aren’t keen on the foods which are naturally rich in calcium, so be prepared to make calcium-fortified options a staple, if necessary.

Meat, fish, eggs, nuts and legumes are all useful sources of protein and in most cases fat, whilst potato, rice and pasta supply carbs.

What if my child is vegan or lactose/dairy intolerant?

If you suspect your child has an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk, you should, in the first instance, talk with your health visitor or GP. They will be able to suggest the next appropriate steps to take and may offer advice on milk alternatives.
A small number of older children (over two years) may tolerate sheep or goat’s milk, even if they have trouble with cow’s milk. This may be because the composition of the milk differs – goat’s milk has smaller fat molecules, which are more evenly distributed through the milk, making the job of digesting the fat easier for young digestive systems. The protein of goat’s and sheep milk is also more easily digested because it’s made up of less alpha S1 casein, a milk protein which is one of the major allergens of cow’s milk. However, if you suspect your child has a cow’s milk allergy, you must seek professional advice to have their tolerance to other milks assessed appropriately.
Most young children tolerate lactose, the natural sugar found in milk, but a small number may lack the enzyme, lactase, which is needed to digest it properly. This is more likely to occur after the age of three and potentially as a temporary problem following a viral illness. There may be a small number of infants with lactase deficiency which may be because of a congenital disorder. If your infant has been diagnosed with lactose intolerance they may still consume lactose-free milk and dairy which continue to provide all the nutritional goodness of regular milk.
From the age of one, and as part of a balanced and varied diet, your child may drink unsweetened calcium-fortified plant milks, such as soya, almond and oat drinks. However, toddlers and young children under five should not consume rice drinks because of the levels of arsenic they contain. If you opt for plant milks you should be aware that although they may work as an alternative for milk in family recipes, nutritionally they may be lacking the protein, calories and micronutrients found in cow’s milk.
Children following a vegan diet may need to supplement to ensure adequate intakes of nutrients like vitamin B12 and iodine. The Department of Health recommends that all children under five, not just those following a vegan diet, take a vitamin supplement containing vitamins A, C and D.

Can you drink too much milk?

If your toddler has a liking for milk, don’t forget that drinking a lot of it will fill them up, making them less likely to eat other foods. This may mean their diet is low in other key nutrients and fibre; low levels of fibre may lead to constipation and associated potty-training issues.

Cow’s milk is low in iron and the calcium it contains may inhibit your child’s absorption of non-haem iron which is found in other foods including plant sources. This means if your child consumes high amounts of milk in preference to other foods, they may potentially be at risk of iron deficiency anaemia.

Milk is a highly nutritious food and as such its calorie content, if consumed in excess, may lead to weight gain. If you feel the amount of milk your child drinks may be leading to excess weight or an avoidance of other foods, consider reducing the amount of milk you offer and talk to your health visitor for more advice.

To help widen your toddler’s diet check out our simple to prepare recipe collection.

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This article was published on 27th August 2020.
Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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