The Best Type of Milk to Give to Children of Various Ages

Young boy drinking a glass of milk

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Should a child drink skim milk instead of whole milk or 2% milk? Do all children need to switch to low-fat milk after a certain age? Here's how to decide when it's appropriate to start your child on different kinds of cow's milk.

The Best Milk for Babies

Cow's milk is not appropriate for babies because it doesn't provide enough of certain important nutrients. Before the age of 12 months, your baby should either be breastfeeding or drinking iron-fortified infant formula.

It is also hard for babies to digest cow's milk because it contains proteins and minerals that can put stress on the kidneys. In some babies, milk can even cause iron-deficiency anemia.

The Best Milk for Kids

Once a child is a year old, you can introduce whole or reduced-fat (2%) milk. How much milk to offer should be discussed with your pediatrician. The amount will take into account how much solid food your child is eating.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children between the ages of 12 and 24 months old consume no more than 2 to 3 cups (16 to 24 ounces) of milk per day.

The reasoning behind the limit is that too much milk in a child's diet can fill them up and leave them not feeling hungry enough to eat a variety of other solid foods.

USDA Milk Recommendations

Children ages 2 to 3 years: around 2 cups of milk (or dairy equivalents) per day

Children ages 4 to 8 years: around 2 1/2 cups of milk (or dairy equivalents) per day

Reasons to Switch to Low-Fat Milk

Some families choose to switch their children to low-fat milk after the age of 2 years. This is a decision that should be discussed with your pediatrician. You'll need to take your child (and family's) preferences into account, as well as consider what foods make up the rest of your child's typical diet.

If your child doesn't get much fat from other areas of their diet, then you may want to continue to offer them whole milk.

Keep in mind that by the time a child is 4 to 5 years old, they should be getting about one-third of their calories from fat. If your child isn't hitting this target, staying on whole milk is one way to boost their intake of fat.

If your child prefers whole milk (and won't drink any milk otherwise), you may want to continue to offer them whole milk to ensure they get the nutrients.

Another aspect of milk to consider is what the rest of the family uses, as it may not be reasonable or practical to buy several different types of milk. For example, if your family drinks low-fat milk, you may need to transition your child to what the rest of the household uses.

What to Do If Your Kids Won't Drink Low-Fat Milk

It can be a big change to go from whole milk to low-fat milk. If your child prefers whole milk, but it's not possible to continue offering it to them because of health or family preference reasons, try making the switch to low-fat milk a more gradual change.

To ease the transition for your child, try going from whole milk to 2% milk first, then transitioning them to 1% milk.

Starting the process early can help ease the transition to low-fat milk. A 2-year-old who really likes to drink milk might be more accepting of low-fat milk than a school-age child would be.

What type of milk to give your child depends on many factors: preference, nutrient needs, availability.

If they do not prefer liquid cow's milk, other dairy foods such as kefir, yogurt, and cheese can fit into a child's meals and snacks. Milk can also be used in things like smoothies and creamy soups to add nutrition.

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Article Sources
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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Why Formula Instead of Cow’s Milk?. Updated July 2018.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Recommended Drinks for Young Children Ages 0-5. Updated September 2019.

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. All about the Dairy Group. ChooseMyPlate. Updated 2020.

  4. Brown J. Nutrition Through The Life Cycle. 6th ed. Mason, Ohio: Cengage Learning; 2016:279-281.

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