Your Child’s Nutritional Requirements
The transition from infancy to toddlerhood comes with changes to how your child meets their nutritional needs. As breast milk and/or infant formula is eliminated and more table foods are introduced between years one and two of life, toddlers begin to rely more heavily on the nutrition they get from the foods they consume and less on liquid calories. This makes deciding on which milk or milk alternative to offer your child all the more important.
Parents need to consider what role milk plays in their child’s existing diet and if/how these nutritional gaps will be met (or not) through the different options for milk alternatives on the market. Many of the key nutrients that were critical in your child’s diet as an infant are still important in toddlerhood. These include:
On average, toddlers need around 1,000 calories per day. While I don’t recommend parents count their children’s calories, this can be a helpful number to keep in mind when parents consider how many calories per day their child gets from milk (or a milk alternative). Often times, toddlers are meeting more of their calorie needs from dairy than necessary. A good target for toddlers is to get two servings of dairy per day, as this helps children to meet their calorie, vitamin D, and calcium needs for growth and development without taking over the role other foods have on helping them meet their overall nutritional needs.
More so than in any other age group, toddlers need fat in their diets. So much so that 30-40% of a toddler’s caloric intake should come in the form of fat, which is just under what they relied on getting from breast milk or infant formula. A variety of fats are necessary for key functions of a child’s health and development, including our children's ability to absorb important fat-soluble vitamins from food (like vitamin D). Fat also offers a mouth feel with the foods it is found in that can help reinforce pleasure and satiety (including with kids). Opting for a milk or milk alternative that offers flavor and a positive mouth-feel by way of fat instead of in the form of added sugars, flavors, or other additives is ideal.
Protein is a major component of every cell in the body and plays a part in helping keep young kids feeling full between meals.Young children, however, often need less protein in their diets than many parents assume, with the average 1-3 year old only requiring 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (i.e. 13 grams of protein for a 26-pound child). While this may not be a lot of protein, milk or milk alternatives can play a key role in helping toddlers meet their protein needs as they transition to table foods and adopt eating habits that include protein-rich foods. Parents should consider the amount, quality, and variety of protein their child is getting from milk- and food-based sources when evaluating which milk alternative offers adequate protein to help their child meet their daily needs.
Vitamin D is increasingly being known not just for its role in the development of healthy bones and teeth but also in immune health and reducing inflammation. As toddlers, our children’s need for vitamin D increases from 400 to 600 IU daily. Although some foods have been fortified with vitamin D to help boost our toddler’s intake, many toddlers struggle to get enough vitamin D from naturally-occurring or fortified food sources alone. Since cow’s milk is often a key source of vitamin D for toddlers as they transition to table foods, parents ought to consider if and how much vitamin D their child gets from non-milk-based sources in order to find a milk alternative that best fills the nutritional void for vitamin D.
From ages 1-3, children need approximately 700 mg of calcium per day to support their growing bones, bodies, and teeth. While cow’s milk is an obvious and efficient way to help toddlers meet their calcium needs, traditional milk is not the only means for children to get enough calcium. Other foods are naturally good sources of calcium and many milk alternatives are fortified to help children on dairy-free diets to meet their calcium needs. Parents should compare the calcium content of milk alternatives when considering which one is best suited for helping their child meet and maintain their calcium needs throughout childhood.
With these nutritional considerations in mind, parents can more keenly compare and contrast the following milk and milk alternatives to evaluate which is nutritionally the best option for their child’s diet.
Milk and Milk Alternatives for Toddlers
Many families are already accustomed to buying and consuming cow’s milk. This makes this milk option an obvious choice for the majority of toddlers (who aren’t avoiding dairy). It is an efficient way to help children get in calcium and vitamin D, as well as to add protein and fat to their diet (assuming a full or reduced fat milk variety is used). Cow’s milk can be an economical and readily available option for families who prefer a milk choice that is convenient both in accessibility and nutritional bioavailability.
An obvious concern with cow’s milk is that it is not suitable for children with a cow’s milk allergy or lactose intolerance, or for families who have adopted a vegan lifestyle. Also, some littles ones may experience functional symptoms related to cow’s milk consumption, such as gas, spit up, constipation or diarrhea. Nutritionally speaking, some children consume more than the recommended daily amount of cow’s milk (or dairy), which may interfere with their intake of iron-rich foods and compromise their iron status since cow’s milk lacks iron and replaces iron-rich foods in some toddler’s diets. Ethically speaking, more families are becoming concerned with the quality of conventional cow’s milk compared to some of the more premium options for organic and/or grass-fed on the market. These premium milk options may be less available and/or cost-prohibitive for many families to consume exclusively.
Cow’s milk is an appropriate pick for parents who want an affordable, readily-available milk option, as long as children do not have an allergy or sensitivity. It also helps promote the nutrients a toddler needs as their diet continues to expand to include more nutrient-rich foods. When possible, I would recommend an organic, grass-fed whole milk as the gold standard for cow’s milk.
Goat milk is an often overlooked alternative to cow’s milk. Goat milk offers a nutrient-dense option to help growing children get in the calories, fat, and protein they need. For children who are sensitive to cow’s milk, goat milk may be a gentler alternative before eliminating dairy-based milk options altogether. Goat milk protein is naturally easier to digest than cow milk protein. It forms a softer, smaller curd in the digestive system (the protein clumps formed during digestion), compared to cow milk. Goat milk proteins are also digested at a closer rate to breast milk than cow’s milk, making goat milk alternatives gentle for tiny tummies and helpful at improving digestive discomfort in sensitive babies.
Goat milk is not suitable for children with a confirmed Cow Milk Protein Allergy, as majority of children with a Cow Milk Protein Allergy also do not tolerate goat’s milk. While standard goat milk is an appropriate option for older children and families, it lacks some important vitamins and minerals for toddlers and infants, such as folic acid, iron, and vitamin D. For these children, my recommendation is to choose an appropriately fortified product, such as Kabrita goat milk formula.
Goat’s milk is an appropriate pick for parents who have a child with digestive symptoms associated with cow milk (i.e. constipation, diarrhea, spit up), but not a true Cow Milk Protein Allergy. Goat milk is also a good option for families who want an easy to digest alternative to cow milk, but aren’t looking to jump immediately to a plant-based alternative. Since a fortified goat milk, like Kabrita, offers more nutritional value than plant based milk options, it may offer the calories, fat, protein, vitamins and minerals a toddler needs better than other alternatives.
Plant-Based Milk Alternatives
Plant-based alternatives offer vegan milk alternatives for families who may be avoiding cow or goat milk due to dietary preferences and/or food allergies. Depending on their selection of plant-based alternatives, families will find a variety of allergen-friendly options that allow them to avoid top allergens like dairy, soy, peanuts, and/or gluten.
Nutritionally, some plant-based milks have comparable calorie, fat, and protein content to cow’s milk. It is important to note, however, that not one plant-based alternative mimics the complete nutritional profile of cow’s milk as closely as goat milk does.
Calories: Oat milk followed by rice milk have the most calories of any plant-based alternative, comparing to the calorie content of a 2% reduced fat cow’s milk. Note these calories come predominantly from carbohydrates, as neither is high in fat nor protein.
Fat: Hemp milk offers more fat than any other plant-based alternative (being comparable to whole cow’s milk), including omega 3s. Coconut milk and pea milk have the next highest fat contents being comparable to 2% reduced fat cow’s milk.
Protein: Options like soy and pea milk offer the most protein content of any plant-based alternative, being comparable with cow’s milk.
Vitamins and Minerals: Since many plant-based alternatives lack the calcium and vitamin D found in cow’s milk, fortified plant-based alternatives are important especially for the toddler population.
Some plant-based alternatives may not be suitable for children with allergies to soy (soy milk), tree nuts (nut milk), or gluten (some oat milk). Research has shown that children may also react poorly to soy milk if a milk protein allergy or intolerance is present, making soy an unfit alternative for some children with a dairy allergy.
Nutritionally, many plant-based alternatives overall contain less calories, fat, and protein than cow’s milk, as well as less vitamin D and calcium. In order to improve the taste and mouthfeel for plant-based alternatives, many have added sweeteners and stabilizers that are best avoided (especially with toddlers).
Calories: No unsweetened, plant-based milk alternative offers comparable calories to whole cow’s milk.
Fat: Plant-based alternatives like almond, flax, oat, and rice all have a much lower fat content, making them comparable to 1% cow’s milk. Remember fat is important for child development, especially the brain!
Protein: Plant-based alternatives like almond, flax, coconut, hemp, oat, and rice all have a lower protein content than cow’s milk, with all but oat milk having only 0-2 grams of protein per 8-ounce serving.
Vitamins and Minerals: Homemade plant-based alternatives (like almond or cashew) will not be fortified like the options available in stores. Parents should consider this when switching exclusively to homemade alternatives to ensure such vitamins and minerals are being consumed elsewhere in the diet.
Plant-based milk alternatives may be an appropriate pick for families who need a milk free from common allergens like dairy, soy, peanuts, and/or gluten. If a toddler consumes enough calories, fat, and protein from other food sources, these milk alternatives may be a healthy beverage alternative. For young toddlers around one year, most plant based milks do not offer sufficient nutrients to be a healthy alternative to cow milk. If/when milk alternatives are introduced, it is important that children prefer the taste in order to promote healthy habits that will last them through adolescence and into adulthood (when their needs for many of the nutrients in cow’s milk increase). Equally, families must consider how easy to find and afford plant-based alternatives are, as some are less readily available and/or economical for a whole family to consume regularly. For plant-based alternatives that have varieties with added sweeteners, parents should select unsweetened varieties to reduce unnecessary added sugar. Using such plant-based alternatives to cook with (in place of water) is a good way to include such milk alternatives on occasion (instead of exclusively) for families who would like to integrate more plant-based options without completely replacing more traditional milks.
Making a Decision on Milk Alternatives for Toddlers
In closing, it is important to note that each toddler’s food intake and taste preferences differ, making there no one-size-fits-all approach to selecting a milk alternative for families. Instead, each parent should consider their child’s diet, lifestyle, and nutritional needs for how a milk or milk alternative helps to support their overall growth and development.
While it can be wonderful for our food industry to expand our options to more products including milk alternatives, it is important for parents to consider what elements of their child’s nutritional needs are being met by milk versus food alone. After factoring in any potential allergies or sensitivities, a family’s first consideration when switching from cow’s milk should be to select a milk alternative that is nutritional suitable and sustainable to meet their growing toddler’s nutritional needs. Most often, this comes in the form of a fortified beverage that contains calories, fat, protein, and vitamins and minerals in an amount complementary to what the child already consumes.
Hopefully this review has helped provide you with a more comprehensive understanding of the pros, cons, and other considerations for choosing a milk or milk alternative for your toddler!