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 under the age of 5 years old drink skim milk instead of whole milk or 2% milk? The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that parents can begin low-fat milk after the age of 2 years. Learn when it's appropriate to start your child on different kinds of cow's milk.

The Best Milk for Babies

Before the age of 12 months, a baby should either be breastfeeding or drinking iron-fortified infant formula. Cow's milk is not appropriate for babies because it doesn't provide enough of certain nutrients. It is also hard for babies to digest due to its content of protein and fat.

The Best Milk for Kids

After a child is 1 year old, you can introduce cow's milk. Before your toddler is 2 years old, unless he has a milk allergy, he or she should be either breastfeeding or drinking whole milk.

USDA Milk Recommendations

The USDA recommends 2 cups of milk daily for age 2 to 3 years. For ages 4 to 8 years, they recommend 2 1/2 cups of milk per day. In general, they recommend fat-free or low-fat milk and dairy products for all ages above age 2, especially if your child is overweight.

Though data on its efficacy is not yet conclusive, doctors may recommend some toddlers witch to low-fat milk even sooner, including those who are:

  • Already overweight
  • Have family members who are obese
  • Have family members with high cholesterol or triglycerides (dyslipidemia)
  • Have family members with cardiovascular disease

Why Switch to Low-Fat Milk

A reason to switch to low-fat milk is that your child will likely be getting plenty of fat from other things that he is eating.

If your child doesn't get enough fat from other areas of his diet, then you may want to keep him on whole milk. Keep in mind that by the time a child is 4 to 5 years old, he should be getting about one-third of his calories from fat. If your child isn't, then staying on whole milk may be a way to boost his intake of fat. But that isn't a problem for most children, especially with the current epidemic of obesity.

If your child is already overweight, a change to low-fat milk can be very important to reduce the amount of fat and calories that he is getting. Milk is still an important part of a healthy diet for these children.

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

It can be a big change to go from whole milk to skim milk, so it is better to make a more gradual change. You might try to go first to 2% milk and then 1% milk, and finally to skim milk.

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

The population approach to a healthful diet should be recommended to all children older than 2 years, according to Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This approach includes the use of low-fat dairy products. For children between 12 months and 2 years of age for whom overweight or obesity is a concern or who have a family history of obesity, dyslipidemia, or CVD, the use of reduced-fat milk would be appropriate.

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Article Sources

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Additional Reading

  • Cow's Milk and Children. MedlinePlus.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition. Complementary Feeding. In: Kleinman RE, Greer FR, eds. Pediatric Nutrition. 7th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2014: 135.