Decline in Childhood Milk Consumption May Affect Long Term Health

A shift in perception of milk's benefits is partly to blame

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Key Takeaways

  • Children are drinking less milk than ever before.
  • American opinions about milk as a healthy choice are shifting, with nut milks quickly rising in popularity.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends milk and water as the best beverage choices for children of all ages.

Milk has historically been a staple in childhood diets and a key source of nutrition. So why are children in the US drinking less of it today?

A recent study published in the Journal of Dairy Science indicates that childhood milk consumption has been decreasing for decades. This is concerning, according to some health experts, given that milk provides an array of health benefits for kids’ growing bodies.

“Adequate consumption of milk and dairy products, especially during childhood, has beneficial health outcomes for growth, development, and reduced risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, obesity, and cancer during adulthood,” the authors wrote in the study.

Declining Milk Consumption

According to the study, “Total consumption of all milk types in U.S. schools declined by 14.2% from 2008 to 2017, and the percentage of children participating in the school lunch program has also declined.” But with millennial parents more concerned about health and wellness than recent generations of parents, the cause of this decline has confounded health experts.

It is cause for pause, given that milk provides an array of health benefits for kids’ growing bodies. The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of cow’s milk for children, recommending 2 to 3 cups daily for toddlers and around 2 to 2.5 cups daily for older kids. The organization cites benefits like calcium for healthy bones, along with vitamin D, protein, and zinc.

The School Milk Program

Since the introduction of the Special Milk Program of 1954, the government has provided subsidized milk to schools to ensure adequate nutrition of American schoolchildren. This is a huge plus, says Susy Cohen, a board-certified registered dietitian. “The program allows schools to offer this nutritious beverage to low-income students in place of other drinks that may have been at their reach instead, such as sodas or fruit juice,” she says. 

Susy Cohen, RDN

The program allows schools to offer this nutritious beverage to low-income students in place of other drinks that may have been at their reach instead, such as sodas or fruit juice.

— Susy Cohen, RDN

But there’s an important drawback to consider. Because many health organizations now recommend lower fat milks for kids due to the obesity epidemic, schools are limited to serving only fat-free or low-fat milk.

“Whole milk is creamier, making it tastier and more generally accepted by younger kids,” says Cohen. “Therefore, the milk being offered may be harder to be accepted by kids and more likely to be wasted and thrown out.”

Why Are Kids Drinking Less Milk? 

It’s a multifaceted issue. Several other factors are contributing to the decline in childhood milk consumption.  

Parents Are Opting for Milk Alternatives

The milk aisle doesn’t exactly look like it used to. For a long time, milk was available two ways: from a carton or from a jug.

But with the rise in popularity of milk alternatives like almond, coconut, and oat milk, as well as environmental and animal welfare concerns, parents are reaching for milk cartons less and less. Research indicates that sales of non-dairy milks have grown a 61% since 2012, in a market that pulls in well over $2 billion annually. 

Concern About Hormones

Bovine growth hormones, used to stimulate milk production in cows, can be found in the cow’s milk we drink. As a result, many parents have switched to organic or grass-fed cow’s milk in an attempt to avoid exposing their little ones to these hormones.

Kids Are Drinking More Juice and Soda

It’s no secret that kids’ diets in the U.S. have steadily worsened over the years. One study found that from 1989 to 2008, calories from sugary beverages increased by 60% in children ages 6 to 11, from 130 to 209 calories per day, and the percentage of children consuming them rose from 79% to 91%.

Encouraging Kids to Drink More Milk

Parents of children who eat a relatively healthy, well-rounded diet may not need to worry as much if their kids aren’t drinking milk regularly. But for kids without regular access to fresh, healthy foods or vitamin supplements, or extremely picky eaters, milk packs a powerful punch of otherwise lacking vitamins and minerals.

“Offer a glass of milk alongside foods that the child genuinely enjoys, such as a banana or a peanut butter sandwich," Cohen suggests. "When new or unpopular foods are paired with those they enjoy, the new food can act as a bridge to help the child try it.” 

When it comes to transitioning a breastfed or formula-fed infant to cow’s milk (when your baby is at least 12 months old), mix the formula or breastmilk with cow’s milk. Slowly increase the amount of milk while decreasing the formula or breastmilk.

What This Means for You

Lactose intolerance or other allergy-based concerns are valid reasons to avoid dairy consumption, but in most instances, cow's milk is a healthy beverage option for growing children.

It's recommended that kids are introduced to milk at an early age (beginning around 12 months) so they develop an affinity for it during their growing years. Encourage your child to drink milk or water by only keeping those in your home, and saving juice and/or soda for limited use or special occasions.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Harvard Pilgrim Health Care - HaPi Guide. Millennials are driving a new generation of healthcare benefits.

  3. Muth N. Recommended drinks for young children ages 0-5. American Academy of Pediatrics.

  4. Congressional Quarterly Almanac. School milk, lunch programs merged in Nutrition Act. 1966;22:328-33.

  5. Mintel. US non-dairy milk sales Grow 61% over the last 5 years.

  6. Malekinejad H, Rezabakhsh A. Hormones in dairy foods and their impact on public health - a narrative review article. Iran J Public Health. 2015;44(6):742-58.

  7. Lasater G, Piernas C, Popkin BM. Beverage patterns and trends among school-aged children in the US, 1989-2008. Nutr J. 2011;10(1):103. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-10-103

  8. Stanford Children's Health. Kids need their nutrients.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Weaning.

  10. Johnson A. Dairy alternatives for kids who won't – or can't – drink milk. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  

By Christin Perry
Christin Perry is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has been published in The Bump, The Knot, Scary Mommy, LittleThings, Parents, Qeepsake, and more. She has experience writing email marketing campaigns, website copy, and SEO-optimized content. Christin is also a mom of three.