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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Kids drinking milk

Choosing the Right Milk for Your Family

Cow, soy, rice, almond … even hemp. Full fat, vitamin D, 1%, 2%, fat free. Organic. Lactose free. Today, there are many milk choices. And I admit that in my refrigerator right now we have quite a few these!

Why drink milk at all? It’s an easy source of calcium that’s so necessary for strong, healthy bones, muscles, and nerves. Milk is usually fortified with vitamin D and can be a good source of protein.

And getting enough calcium as a kid sets the stage for healthy bones as an adult. The maximum period of bone growth is in the preteen and teen years, and during this time kids need about 1,300 mg of calcium a day. As adults, we start losing bone mass and can no longer make our bones stronger.

So parents, we have an important job to do: Get calcium into our kids now, and milk is an easy way to do that.

Calcium is found in dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) and in fortified tofu, nuts, and dark green leafy veggies, including broccoli. Juice can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D but is so high in sugar that it’s a poor choice for many families.

While there are many sources of calcium, it seems easiest to serve cow’s milk. But you can breastfeed until your baby is at least age 1, then when weaning, start introducing cow’s milk. If you formula feed, switch to cow’s milk at age 1. We recommend full fat, vitamin D-fortified cow’s milk from age 1 to 2. Then after age 2, serve your family low-fat milk. Most kids will thrive on a diet that includes 2 glasses a day. More than that puts a child at risk for anemia.

Some kids aren’t able to digest the sugar in milk because they’re lactose intolerant. Others are sensitive to cow’s milk proteins. Some families follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you’re shopping for alternatives, it’s important to know what to look for. Choose a milk product that has:

  • About 300 mg calcium per servingItem
  • About 100 IU of vitamin D
  • No added sugar

Comparison of Milk AlternativesMany substitutes like rice and coconut milk don’t have enough protein to be a great choice. Often children allergic to cow’s milk are allergic to soy as well. Talk with your pediatrician before offering it.

A few final words:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics has found no benefit to drinking organic milk.
  • All milk served should be pasteurized to reduce the risk of serious infections with Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria.
  • Goat’s milk is not safe. It lacks the full range of nutrients that kids need. Specifically, it doesn’t have enough B vitamins and iron, and has the wrong mix of electrolytes and protein, increasing the risk of anemia and kidney damage in children who drink it.
  • There’s generally no need for toddler formulas. If your child is gaining weight well (always check in with your pediatrician) just start them on full-fat cow’s milk at age 1.
  • Skip milks flavored with chocolate (or other flavors) since they’re usually quite high in sugar.

If you choose to serve milk, it’s a great source of nutrition for most kids! If you avoid it, be sure to serve foods that provide your family enough calcium and vitamin D.

And remember, there’s only one thing a child needs to drink – water (certainly not juice or soda)!

Find more resources for parents:
My Doctor Online