Milk vs. milk alternatives for toddlers & kids | Element Nutrition Kids

Milk vs. milk alternatives for toddlers & kids

One of the most common topics that come up in my office and on my social media feed is milk, particularly when milk alternatives for toddlers. This is a popular topic because around 1-year babies can start being introduced to milk (other than breastmilk or formula). Yet, this is a pretty controversial topic for many parents.

Please note: if you are breastfeeding, continuing to breastfeed your baby is the number one choice. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for at least the first two years of life.

However, after working with thousands of families, I know that continuing breastfeeding (or breastfeeding at all) might not be possible. Therefore, this article will address the best recommendations for milk when you transition away from formula or breastmilk (whether that is at 1 year, 2 years or beyond).

The top questions I get about milk and milk alternatives for toddlers are:

  • When should I start my baby on regular milk?
  • How much milk should my toddler drink?
  • Can my toddler drink almond milk?
  • Isn’t soy milk bad for you?

There are so many reasons parents ask these questions:

  1. There is a TON of misinformation swirling around the internet
  2. They truly want to know what is best for their child
  3. Many struggle with food allergies or intolerances
  4. Some are raising their family on a plant-based/vegan diet

Why do toddlers need milk?

The short answer is that toddlers don’t NEED milk, however, they do need key nutrients that milk contains. Since they are used to drinking formula or breastmilk it is often easiest for them to get these nutrients from milk (or appropriate milk alternatives for toddlers, which we will review more in a bit.)

“Milk” contains many nutrients necessary for helping kids grow, such as vitamin D, calcium, protein, and fat. While milk is not the only source of these nutrients that kids can eat, toddlers tend to get those easiest from milk. 

At the age of one, it is safe to introduce whole cow’s milk or an appropriate alternative. Again, this is if you are not continuing breastfeeding. You can continue breastfeeding and still introduce a milk/alternative as well.

Appropriate cow’s milk alternatives have a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk to ensure toddlers are best meeting their key nutrient needs. If you are breastfeeding and can/want to continue, that is awesome, keep ongoing. You can still provide milk/milk alternatives even if you breastfeed.

Best milk alternatives for toddlers

As previously mentioned, when you are choosing a cow’s milk alternative for toddlers, you want to make sure it has a similar nutritional profile to cow’s milk. This includes calcium, vitamin D, B12, protein, fat, and calories.

The toddler age (1-3 years) is important for development and is not the time to cut calories or fat which is needed for brain formation.

The following table outlines different milk alternatives and how they compare to whole cow’s milk.

Common milk and milk alternatives (Table 1)

Dairy Pure Whole Cow’s MilkLactaid Enriched Lactose Free MilkSilk Original Soy MilkRipple Pea Milk OriginalAlmond Breeze Almond Milk OriginalSilk Original Coconut MilkRice Dream Enriched Original Rice MilkQuaker Oats Original Oat Beverage
Calcium (Ca)276 mg500 mg450 mg450 mg450 mg450 mg300 mg300 mg
Ca CarbonateTribasic calcium phosphateCa Carbonate & Tri Ca PhosphateCa PhosphateCa CarbonateCa CarbonateTri Cal PhosphateCalcium Carbonate
Vitamin D150 IU150 IU90 IU180 IU150 IU60 IU150 IU150 IU

You can see from this table that not all milk alternatives compare well to the nutrient composition of whole cow’s milk.

Nutrients in breastmilk

Breastmilk is always the best choice for your baby/toddler if that is a choice you are able to make. Eight ounces of breastmilk contains around 161 kcal, 3g protein, 10g fat, 85 mg calcium, <1 mcg of Vitamin D.

If you are breastfeeding your baby and toddler, be sure to continue Vitamin D supplementation as breastmilk is very low in vitamin D.

Breastmilk is also slightly lower in protein, but much higher in fat. The protein can be easily made up through other foods in their diet. If you are breastfeeding and not introducing other milk/alternatives, but sure to focus on calcium-rich food sources to meet your toddlers’ needs. (Those can be found in more detail below.)

Best alternatives to cow’s milk for toddlers and children

The best cow’s milk alternatives for toddlers and kids are ones that have a similar nutritional profile.

  • Soy Milk
  • Pea Milk
  • Blends containing the above

These options have similar protein, calcium, and vitamin D levels as whole cow’s milk and about ½ the fat content. Fat can easily be made up in the diet by encouraging healthy fat intake for your toddler.

Some good fat sources could include plant-based oils, creamy nut or seed butter, avocados and seeds. If you consume fish, fatty fish such as tuna and salmon are also great options.

Worst alternatives to cow’s milk for toddlers and children

These milk alternatives tend to be lower in fat and protein, however, they may be fortified with nutrients such as Vitamin D, Calcium and B Vitamins–if you choose to use these, be sure to check the label for fortification.

  • Almond milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Rice milk
  • Oat milk

These kinds of milk are generally not ideal for toddlers or young children because they are low in protein, fat, and calories. If you have a picky toddler, these can be particularly hard to make up through good food variety (though it can be done.)

Cow’s Milk vs. Almond Milk

Although it may have enough nutrients if fortified, it has significantly less protein, fat, and calories than cow’s milk. All of these nutrients are important for growing toddlers. Rice milk, coconut milk, and oat milk are similar.

If you do decide to use these alternatives, but sure to pay particular attention to the breakdown of your child’s diet, so you can be sure to get adequate nutrition elsewhere. If you’re not sure, a pediatric registered dietitian can help.

Cow’s Milk vs. Soy Milk

Regular, unsweetened soy milk is one of the best alternatives to cow’s milk for toddlers. One cup of soy milk has a comparable amount of protein to cow’s milk (7-8 g/cup). The fat content is slightly lower around 4.5 g, however, it is the closest fat content of all the alternatives. Pea milk is another good option if you cannot use soy due to an allergy or just don’t like the idea of giving your child soy milk.

Is soy milk safe for kids?

The short answer is yes. But, you have likely heard some talk about soy milk and other soy products containing estrogen which can affect hormone levels. Many people worry about giving soy milk to their toddlers and kids, especially boys, so it’s important to know the facts.

Soy has naturally occurring compounds called phytoestrogens, similar to the hormone estrogen which is high in women (but also in men). However, phytoestrogenand estrogen are NOT the same things.

Research does not show that consuming soy products will create an estrogen-like effect on men. There are also no peer-reviewed scientific studies showing that soy increases the risk of cancer.

In fact, some studies show that soy products may actually help prevent certain types of cancer such as breast and prostate cancer and are beneficial to overall health.

Main takeaway: You do not have to worry about offering soy milk or soy products to your toddler or child.

Pinterest image showing how to pick the best milk alternative for kids

Key nutrients in milk alternatives

1. Calcium

One of the biggest reasons milk is recommended for toddlers is because of its high calcium content. Calcium is an important nutrient for children because it is involved in bone and teeth strength and it is also needed to make sure their heart, muscles, and nerves function properly.

Without adequate calcium, children may not reach their full potential adult height and may also have low bone mass.

In the body, bone is constantly “remodeling.” This means bone is broken down – resorbed, and then builds back up stronger (bone formation). In kids, because they are constantly growing, Calcium is especially important as they are constantly forming new, stronger bones to keep up with their growth.

How much calcium does my toddler need?

The following table shows your child’s calcium needs by age. As you can see there is a large jump in calcium needs around 1 year of age, when babies become toddlers. Prior to this, your baby’s calcium needs will be met from breastmilk or formula. Once they hit the 1-year mark and their calcium needs increase, they need additional calcium from food sources.

There are many food sources that contain calcium so it’s good to focus on those as well.

However, milk (and milk alternatives) have a high amount of calcium per volume, which is important because toddlers have very small bellies. Since they are also used to drinking formula or breastmilk it is often easier to get calcium in them from milk/milk alternatives.

Daily Calcium needs by age (Table 2)

Age Amount
0-6 mo 200 mg
7-12 mo 260 mg
1-3 yr 700 mg
4-8 yr 1000 mg
9-13 yr 1300 mg

Eight ounces (2 servings) of milk contain around 275 mg of calcium which is about 40% of the daily calcium needs for a toddler and 28% percent of daily needs for pre-school aged children.

Some, but not all milk alternatives are fortified with calcium. It is important to read the label when purchasing a milk alternative to ensure the one you buy is fortified.

In table one above, several milk alternatives are listed which are fortified with calcium in varying quantities. If you look at the ingredient list of product you are thinking of buying, you can see if it is fortified with calcium and type of calcium it contains.

When looking at the calcium fortification, it is also important to make sure it’s the right kind of calcium. For milk alternatives, calcium carbonate is ideal. 

Calcium carbonate is the form of calcium that is more available and better absorbed by our bodies. It’s not that other forms of calcium are bad, it is just harder for your body to absorb them.

You will often see milk products fortified with calcium triphosphate. The milk has to be much higher in calcium triphosphate for your body to absorb the same amount that it would if it was calcium carbonate.

Calcium carbonate also requires stomach acid for absorption, so its best to have your kids drinking their milk WITH a meal, instead of as a stand-alone beverage.

2. Vitamin D

Another key nutrient in milk is vitamin D. When Calcium is paired together with Vitamin D, it helps the Calcium be absorbed into the bones. Vitamin D is important for overall health and has been associated with reducing the risk of many chronic diseases.

Toddlers and young children need 600 IU (15 mcg) of vitamin D/day

One 8 oz glass of cow’s milk contains around 150 IU of vitamin D. Most fortified milk alternatives have comparable amounts.

Always check to make sure the milk alternative you purchase has been fortified with vitamin D. In table one above, you can see that all milk alternatives listed had some vitamin D.

3. Vitamin B 12

Animal products naturally contain vitamin B12, which is important for red blood cell formation and neurological function. This is especially important in growing children.

Vegan children (since they do not consume animal products) are at the highest risk for vitamin B12 deficiency and should take a B12 supplement.

Most vegan babies/children cannot get enough B12 from fortified food alone, so supplementation is recommended.

  • Children 1-3 years need 0.9 mcg of B12/day
  • Children 4-8 years need 1.2 mcg of B12/day

Cows milk contains 1.2 mcg of B12 per cup (which meets 100% of the RDA for children 1-8 years old). When purchasing a milk alternative for toddlers and children, it is important to look for B12 fortification. Other foods fortified with B12 include breakfast cereals and nutritional yeast.

4. Protein

Cow’s milk contains 8g of protein per 8 oz glass. Similarly, soy milk and pea milk also include around 8 g per 8 oz. glass.

Protein is important for toddlers and young kids for growth and development, the fat also helps with satiety.

Pea milk, soy milk, and blends have similar protein content to cows milk.

5. Fat

Toddlers and young kids need fat intake for brain development. It is also needed to help absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K). Many people choose milk alternatives because they are lower in fat and calories than cow’s milk.

Toddlerhood is not the time to reduce fat and calories.

This period is critical for the brain to develop and fat is needed for it to do so. Though not as high as with cow’s milk, soy and pea milk both have a higher fat content than other milk alternatives.

How to introduce milk to baby

Cow’s milk and non-dairy alternative beverages should not be introduced until your baby is one year old.

Introducing milk too early can increase the risk of iron deficiency and cause intestinal bleeding, especially if given before nine months.

If your child is over the age of one and has an adverse reaction to dairy products, it may be appropriate to trial dairy alternatives. Dairy alternatives are also important for toddlers following a plant-based or vegan diet. As outlined above, it is important that the alternative you choose provides your baby with the key nutrients needed for growth.

 How much milk should a toddler be drinking

This question comes up a lot when I am working with clients, and for good reason. Babies drink a lot of formula/breastmilk. Many are drinking 24-32 oz a day before weaning. For many toddlers (and parents) it’s hard to give up that milk volume, especially when it is in the comfort of a bottle.

It is important to limit your toddler’s milk intake to no more than 24 ounces per day. Ideally 12-16 oz/day max.

This includes both cow’s milk AND plant-based milk alternatives which are fortified with calcium. In reality, your toddler doesn’t need more than 3-4 total dairy servings per day. 1 serving of milk for a toddler is just 4 ounces.

If they are consistently drinking 24+ ounces of milk, they are likely not eating enough of other foods needed for growth and development.

There is also a higher risk of anemia that comes with drinking too much milk and not enough iron-rich foods. High intake of milk can often fill up toddlers’ bellies, so they don’t have room for more nutrient-rich foods. Milk is also high in calcium which interferes with iron absorption in high quantities.

Picky eating anemia

Another common reason for iron deficiency in toddlers is because of their picky eating tendencies. Many toddlers will start to refuse meat, beans, and other iron-rich foods and choose milk instead.

Be sure to include lots of iron-rich food sources each day to increase the likelihood your toddler is getting enough iron.

Iron-rich foods (heme or animal-based iron) include red meat, pork, poultry, seafood, and (non-heme plant-based iron) beans, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, peas, and iron-fortified cereals, bread, and pasta. Including vitamin C rich foods with iron-rich foods will help increase absorption.

How you support your picky toddler will help tremendously with how intense the picky eating phase is and how long it lasts. In this post, I outline the 7 things you can do if you are struggling with feeding a picky toddler. 

Cow’s milk intolerance in toddlers and kids

Intolerance to cow’s milk is fairly common. This is usually related to an intolerance to lactose. Lactose is the natural sugar found in cow’s milk and some children (and many adults) don’t have the ability to easily digest this sugar. This is normally due to a deficiency of the enzyme lactase which is responsible for breaking down the lactose.

Most children start off producing enough of the enzyme lactase, which is why they don’t have issues with breastmilk or formula. However, as they start eating other foods, the amount of lactase their bodies produce naturally decreases. Many children are still able to produce enough to cover the foods they eat, but some are not.

Primary lactose intolerance occurs when lactase production is greatly decreased and there is not enough to digest dairy products. Premature babies also are at increased risk of lactose intolerance because lactase-producing cells don’t develop until late in the third trimester.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies and toddlers

Lactose intolerance symptoms can include gas, bloating, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea.These will usually occur about 30 minutes to two hours after consuming foods with lactose in them.

The severity of symptoms varies between each child. Some children may have mild lactose intolerance where they cannot tolerate cow’s milk but are able to consume other dairy products like milk and cheese. For some, it may be so severe that all dairy products cause a reaction.

Lactose intolerance and lactose malabsorption are different than a milk allergy. Lactose intolerance is relatively common, while a milk allergy is a less common immune system disorder. A milk allergy occurs when someone is allergic to the protein found in milk, casein. If you have a child experiencing issues with cow’s milk, they may be able to tolerate lactose-free milk. Lactose-free milk is still cow’s milk but simply with the lactose removed. Otherwise, plant-based milk like soymilk or pea milk is your best option.

Calcium supplement for kids

Most of the time, kids don’t need a calcium supplement. However, there are cases when one might be beneficial. Especially if your child is not consuming milk or milk alternatives OR calcium-rich foods regularly.

The preferred form of calcium for supplements is calcium citrate or calcium carbonate. The primary difference is that calcium carbonate needs to be taken with meals because stomach acid is needed to break down and absorb the calcium. This is why even if your child is drinking milk (which contains calcium carbonate) it is best to drink it with a meal vs. alone. Calcium citrate, however, can be absorbed on an empty stomach and is less likely to cause constipation.

Most children’s multivitamins do not contain a significant amount of calcium (around 20 mg). The multivitamin with one of the highest amounts of calcium I have seen is the Flinstones Complete chewable with 100 mg/tablet.

I always encourage parents to provide food sources of calcium first (milk/milk alternatives and other calcium-rich foods-dairy or non-dairy) before going to supplements.

***Always talk with your child’s pediatrician before starting any supplement.

Calcium-rich foods for toddlers

It is important to encourage your toddler to eat foods that are rich in calcium each day. This is especially important if they don’t like drinking milk or milk alternatives that are fortified. If you know your child may be struggling to get enough calcium due to not drinking cow’s milk or dairy alternatives, it is important to incorporate foods that contain calcium into their diet as well.

Nondairy foods high in calcium include

  • Tofu
  • Collard greens
  • Cooked spinach
  • Soybeans
  • Poppy seeds
  • Fortified cereals
  • Raisins
  • Broccoli

Non-Dairy Cheese is also an option, just be cautious, many of these cheese alternatives are low in calcium and protein. Some types of cheeses may have slightly more protein (~4-5 g) per serving, while many only have 1 g per serving. Check nutrition labels on products before you buy them. The main take away here is that non-dairy cheese is fine for kids who can’t tolerate dairy cheese, but it is important to remember to not over-do it thinking that your child is benefitting from lots of nutrients when this may not be the case.

Non-Dairy yogurt is also an option for kids who can’t tolerate the usual dairy-based yogurt. Be sure to look for ones that have some calcium and protein in them. Many types of non-dairy yogurt are calcium fortified. Similar to milk, soy and pea yogurt options or higher protein almond milk yogurt options are best.

In Conclusion

Toddlers and young children benefit from milk or an appropriate milk alternative as a good source of fat, protein, calcium and vitamin D, all needed for growth and development. Milk alternatives, if chosen correctly can meet the same need as cow’s milk in your toddler or child.

Soy milk fortified with calcium carbonate and vitamin D is the best milk alternative for your toddler. If you cannot use soy, pea milk would be the next best alternative.

Avoid giving your toddler almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk or rice milk as they are not appropriate substitutions for cow’s milk. Provide your child regular servings of calcium-rich foods in addition to milk/milk alternatives and consider supplementation if needed. Choosing the right milk alternatives for toddlers is important to help them meet their key nutrient needs for growth.

6 thoughts on “Milk vs. milk alternatives for toddlers & kids”

  1. Has there been any study on the value of organic cow’s milk versus organic formula (specifically, European brands) versus organic toddler formula? Getting ready to wean from breast milk at 1year birthday. Thanks!

    1. Hi Nickole,
      Great question. I don’t know that there is a study specifically comparing cow’s milk to the European toddler formulas, however, there are some studies looking at the benefit of toddler formulas. Most of the time they are not needed. Most kids can get the nutrients they need over 1 from a combination of food and cow’s milk (or milk alternatives like soy milk or pea milk which are fortified with calcium/vitamin D), there are also lot of great fat sources. Many of the toddler milk have other ingredients added to them as well. If your child can tolerate cow, soy or pea milk, that would be the better way to go unless your pediatrician specifically recommended toddler milk. I would chat with your doctor about it if you have concerns about growth. Here is one article you might find helpful.

  2. Hi there,

    What is the best way to introduce milk to a newly turned 1 year old? Sippy cup? Bottle? Breastmilk/milk combination? 1 time a day?


    1. Hi Elise,
      Great question. This depends on where your 1-year-old is with what they are able to drink out of. Usually, the goal is to wean off the bottle by about 15 months max. So if your baby already knows how to drink out of a straw cup, that would be my first choice for intro. I don’t love sippy cups, straw cup would be preferred. You can offer milk in a bottle if that is what they are used to drinking out of and you plan to move away from formula or breastmilk but be diligent about not giving it right before sleeping without cleaning off their teeth before bed. You can start just offering it once during the day (in a cup preferably) to see how they do tolerance-wise and work up from there. If you are nursing, you can continue that as long as you can/want. If you are nursing I would keep milk at meals and nurse other times. The goal eventually is to get milk at meal times only and slowly wean off the between-meal feeds and eventually the morning and before bed feeds, when you are ready!

  3. Why is it recommended to wean off of formula at 1 year of age but to continue breastfeeding until at least 2 years of age?

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Jessica Gust, MS, RDN
P 805.550.1724 F 805.476.1435
[email protected]
405 E. Branch St. #102 Arroyo Grande, CA 93420

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