Should You Give Your Kids Low-Fat or Whole Milk?

Young child drinking large glass of milk
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Milk, in one form or another, is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, and protein for children and adults. Depending on how old they are, most kids should drink two to four glasses of milk each day. This is especially important if they aren't eating or drinking other calcium-rich foods, such as yogurt, cheese, or calcium-fortified orange juice.

In light of the childhood obesity epidemic, parents sometimes wonder which milk is best for their child—particularly where fat content is concerned. Whole milk has a lot of fat in it compared to low-fat milk and nonfat milk, but that doesn't mean it can't be part of a healthy diet.

Which Milk Is Best?

When your children are still newborns and younger infants, it's easier to figure out which type of milk they need. At this age, most parents give babies breast milk or iron-fortified infant formula (or a combination of the two).

It can still be a little confusing to choose the right time to switch to low-fat milk. Your child's pediatrician might have told you to switch your child to whole milk after their first birthday, or later on (after they have decided to wean from breastfeeding).

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) used to recommend that all children switch to low-fat milk after the age of two years old. Younger toddlers who weren't breastfeeding were supposed to drink whole milk.

However, those recommendations were changed in 2008 when the AAP published a report, "Lipid Screening and Cardiovascular Health in Childhood." In response to the report, the AAP issued new guidelines for parents.

American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations

The AAP now advises parents that reduced-fat milk might be appropriate for some children who are between the ages of 12 months and 2 years old if:

  • The child is already overweight
  • The child has family members who are overweight, have high cholesterol, or other health risk factors

Choosing Whole Milk

Whole milk is a good option for most toddlers over age 12 months who are not breastfeeding or drinking formula.

The AAP states that "young children need calories from fat for growth and brain development," and that ensuring a child is getting adequate amounts of these nutrients is especially important during the first two years of a child's life.

One benefit of whole milk over low-fat milk is that many people prefer the taste. For kids who don't get used to the taste of low-fat milk or simply refuse to drink it, whole milk might be the only way parents can encourage a child to drink milk at all.

Whole milk might be a better choice if you have a child who is a picky eater. If your child us not getting enough fat and calories from the rest of their diet, milk might be a helpful way to supplement some of that missing nutrition (as long as your child is not overweight).

However, you don't want all of your child's calories to come from milk. Talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitian if you are unsure how to include milk in your child's diet to meet their nutritional needs.

Choosing Low-Fat Milk

While the AAP touts the benefits of whole milk for younger toddlers who are not overweight, the organization does say that parents can switch children to skim or low-fat milk after the age of two.

You might wonder if the differences between whole milk and low-fat milk matter—or if there even are many differences. Here's a comparison of nutrition labels for each type of milk.

Calories and Fat Content of Milk

Per 8-ounce serving:

  • Whole milk: 150 calories, 8g fat
  • 2% milk (reduced-fat milk): 120 calories, 4.5g fat
  • 1% milk (low-fat milk): 100 calories, 5g fat
  • Skim milk (nonfat milk): 80 calories, 0g fat

Here's an example of how these nutritional differences can add up. If your five-year-old typically drinks three cups of milk a day, they would save 150 calories a day by drinking 1% milk instead of whole milk.

It might not seem like much, but consider the math. If 3,500 calories is equal to one pound, an extra 150 calories per day could add up to a weight gain of one pound in about three weeks.

150 calories per day x 23 days = 3450 calories = 1 pound

Making a Switch

Keep in mind that the research is ongoing regarding milk fat consumption and its relationship to obesity in children. One large research review published in 2019 suggested that reduced-fat milk for children might not lower the risk of childhood obesity.

Ask your child's pediatrician about which guidelines you should follow to best meet your child's individual nutrition needs.

The current AAP recommendations suggest switching your toddler to whole milk at 12 months old if they are not going to continue breastfeeding. Then, switch to skim or low-fat milk when your child is two years old. However, if your child is already overweight, you will want to make the switch earlier (around 12 months).

Making the switch to low-fat milk at an early age can be easier. An older child is more likely to notice (and possibly resist) the change to low-fat milk.

No matter how old your child is, it's best to make the switch gradually. Start by going from whole to 2% milk, then work in 1% milk or skim milk later on.

Giving your child low-fat milk can encourage healthy habits that will stay with them for the rest of their life. Kids who start drinking low-fat milk are more likely to choose it as teens and adults.

Soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and other dairy milk alternatives are typically low in fat. These options might be a good choice for your child when they reach the two-year mark and are ready to switch—especially if they are allergic to cow's milk or are lactose intolerant.

3 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.
  1. Daniels SR, Greer FR. Lipid screening and cardiovascular health in childhood. Pediatrics. 2008;122(1):198-208. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-1349

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Feeding & nutrition tips: Your 2-year-old.

  3. Vanderhout SM, Aglipay M, Torabi N, et al. Whole milk compared with reduced-fat milk and childhood overweight: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2020;111(2):266-279. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqz276

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.