Everything You Need to Know About Giving Your Child Non-Dairy Milk

A vignette of four jars with non-dairy milk have blue and white striped straws.

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Some people love drinking cow's milk, while some, like me are not huge fans. Milk has always been a sour topic for me. I never enjoyed it as a child and used to drink it with my nose pinched every night at dinner. Now that I have a 1-year-old who is transitioning from formula to milk, I am overwhelmed with the options. Milk has come a long way since the ‘80s when I was drinking it, and it’s hard to keep track of all the new brands and types of milk.

If you’ve visited any grocery store lately, you’ll know that the alternative or non-dairy milk market has exploded. It seems like you can make nearly anything into milk! But not all non-dairy milks are created equal when it comes to the nutrition your toddler needs. Here is everything you need to know about non-dairy milk, including the types of milks that are recommended and not recommended, and how to start the transition.

Why Milk Has Been Traditionally Recommended for Toddlers 

Chances are, you also grew up only being offered cow's milk. It used to be that pediatricians encouraged milk for young and growing bones, thanks to the calcium found within whole milk. Alternatives were only suggested if you had a milk allergy.

But now there are options for people regardless of allergies, and your pediatrician might feel differently about whole milk. “Milk can be a healthy option for those who wish to give it to their children, but children over the age of one can be perfectly healthy just drinking water, or drinking milk alternatives,” says Joel Gator, MD, a board-certified pediatrician and founder of Integrative Pediatrics in Studio City, Calif. He says that your child can get all the calcium they need from food instead of whole milk. Alternatively, they can meet their daily calcium goals through a mixture of cow's milk and other sources of calcium and vitamin D.

In fact, Dr. Gator himself doesn't drink dairy milk and chose not to give it to his own son. “I feel that plant-based milks are a fantastic alternative, and are definitely not a fad,” he says. “Many children enjoy them more and tolerate them better [than cow’s milk].”

What to Look for in Non-Dairy Milks 

It used to be that soy was the only alternative to cow’s milk. But now, there are many more options on the market.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) recommendation is either dairy milk or soy milk. This is because of the amino acid profile and fat content. I recommend serving fortified non-dairy milks with calcium and vitamin D,” says Alex Caspero, MA, RD, owner of Delish Knowledge. “Most fortified non-dairy milks contain the same or often more calcium and vitamin D than dairy milk.” She notes that some milks contain DHA, B12, Vitamin A, and other nutrients essential for a growing child. While cow's milk and soy milk are higher in protein, a child will still meet their protein requirements if you serve non-dairy milks alongside protein-rich foods.

While your child can get calcium from foods such as kale, broccoli, sunflower seeds, and tahini, among other foods, if you choose to give your child non-dairy alternative milk, there are a few things to look for. You’ll want to make sure it has protein, fat, fiber, calcium, and iron according to Dr. Gator. “Look for a very clean milk alternative with few preservatives,” he suggests. “And one that is low in sugar.” 

Amber Rodenas, RN, LDN, founder of Seeds and Sprouts Nutrition for Kids, says, When looking for a milk alternative, it is best to choose one with comparable nutritional value to cow's milk in regards to protein and calcium content." For reference, 8 ounces of cow's milk has 8 grams protein, 300 mg of calcium, and 3 mcg of vitamin D.

Types of Non-Dairy Milk

Here are just a few of the options you’ll find on your grocery store's shelves. 

Soy Milk

Many parents are familiar with soy milk, as it is often recommended for children with dairy allergies. It can also be a good option for parents seeking an alternative to dairy milk for other reasons.

“If your baby needs more calories and more protein, soy may be your best bet,” says Caspero. ”It’s nutritionally the best alternative to cow’s milk.” Rodenas adds that typically, 8 ounces of soy milk has 8 grams of protein, 450 mg of calcium, and 3 mcg of vitamin D.

Oat Milk

Caspero says oat milk is great for baked goods because it has higher carbohydrate content and browns baked goods well. “Its viscosity is very similar to dairy milk,” she says. It is also high in calcium and vitamin D when fortified.

For preschool-aged children, look for oat milks that are higher in fat and low in sugar. Rodenas adds that many oat milk options are lower in protein—around 2 grams—but higher in calcium, around 460 mg, so take note when shopping. However, as long as your child eats protein-rich foods throughout the day, the lower protein in oat milk shouldn't be a problem.

Nut Milk

Nut milks have come to encompass everything from almond milk to cashew milk to pecan milk and beyond. Any nut can technically be milked, although some—like almond milk—tend to be more mainstream. However, note that almond milk might not be suitable for all ages. “Because almond milk tends to be lower in calories, around 35 calories per cup of unsweetened almond milk, I don't recommend it for toddlers and preschoolers,” she says.

Rodenas points out that some nut milks are higher in dietary contents than others. She likes an almond cashew blend that has 10 grams of protein, 450 mg of calcium, and 15 mcg of vitamin D. 

Pea Protein Milk Blends

Caspero notes that pea protein milk blends are nutritionally good options as well. Pea milks are specifically formulated to have fiber, protein, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids to help with nutrition. Pea protein milk blends are made from yellow split-peas to achieve a look akin to cow’s milk and have some sort of oil in it, plus thickeners, flavor, and nutrients (if you purchase a fortified version).

Milk Alternatives that Aren’t Recommended for Children

Besides any milks that are labeled as "low-calorie" or "diet," there are a few more milks that experts don't recommend for preschool-aged children.

Coconut Milk

Pure coconut milk is also an alternative to dairy milk. It has a high-fat content but not the right kind of fats. From a dietary perspective, Rodenas doesn’t recommend it. “It contains virtually no protein or carbs, but is high in saturated fat,” she says. She suggests using it in baked goods or dishes like curry instead of letting your toddler drink it. Some brands do offer a coconut milk beverage, which is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. This may be suitable for your children, as long as they are eating protein rich foods to balance the low protein in a coconut beverage.

Rice Milk

As with coconut milk, Rodenas doesn’t love the protein and fat content of rice milk. She points out that it has a high carbohydrate content as well. “However, it can still be used in cooking and baking as a lactose-free alternative,” she says. 

How to Transition to Non-Dairy Milk 

The transition away from formula and/or breastmilk happens around age 1. The AAP recommends that children ages 12 to 24 months drink whole milk to get the extra fat they need in their diets to promote good brain development. They will also start switching from bottles to cups around the same time.

Rodenas advises transitioning to alternative milk the same way you would to cow’s milk. “You can transition in a step-wise approach by mixing some of the milk or milk alternative with breastmilk or formula,” she says. “You can slowly increase the amount [of milk] over the course of several days until there is no formula or breastmilk remaining.”

The full transition should have your child drinking 16 to 24 ounces of milk or milk alternative per day, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.However, remember that these servings don't have to come from liquid cow's milk or fortified dairy alternatives—you can get calcium and vitamin D from cheese, whole milk yogurt, whole milk kefir, and more!

A Word from Verywell Family

There is no “best” alternative milk on the market, as it truly depends on your child’s nutritional needs or restrictions and your family’s lifestyle. Be sure to read labels on all milks to make the right decision for your family. Always consult with your pediatrician or a registered dietician who specializes in children before changing anything drastically in your child’s diet. 

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  1. US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.