Why Drinking Milk Is Recommended for Kids and What Milk Is Best

Young girl pouring a glass of milk in a kitchen
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Milk can play an important role in a child’s nutrition, from an infant drinking breastmilk to a toddler eating cereal with milk to a teenager putting milk into a smoothie. Cow’s milk, specifically, provides a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that kids need to support growth and development.

Types of Milk

Although most caregivers think of cow's milk when they hear the word "milk," there is now a wide variety of beverages that go by that name. The nutrition of the different types of milk varies greatly.

The different types of "milk" that kids might drink include:

  • Cow's milk (including whole, 2%, 1%, fat-free/skim; organic; condensed; evaporated; grass-fed; flavored, such as chocolate milk)
  • Dairy alternatives (such as rice, almond, soy, coconut, cashew, hemp, and oat)
  • Goat's milk

Milk Nutrition

Cow’s milk naturally contains protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin B12. Cow’s milk is fortified with vitamin D (meaning that it’s added to the cow’s milk during processing). Vitamin A is added to reduced-fat, low-fat, and non-fat milk.

Because these are important nutrients for growth and development, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that younger kids get up to 2 cups of milk a day and older kids get 3. If kids do not prefer liquid cow’s milk, have lactose intolerance, or a family is vegan, the nutrients found in cow’s milk are available in other foods.

Kids can still meet their daily nutrient requirements without milk through a well-planned diet that includes other foods rich in protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A and D. Foods made from cow’s milk, like yogurt, kefir, and cheese, are also an option for getting the nutrients from milk into a child’s diet even if the child doesn’t prefer liquid cow’s milk.

Non-Dairy Milk Alternatives

If your child prefers a non-dairy milk alternative, like almond or rice milk, opt for a version is fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Then, you’ll need to be sure to offer other foods throughout the day that contain protein since most dairy-alternatives are very low in protein, as well as the other nutrients milk provides like vitamin A, potassium, and vitamin B12.

Milk Recommendations for Kids

In general, most kids benefit from consuming cow's milk, or cow's milk products, after they are 12 months old (if they don't have a milk allergy). Keep in mind that toddlers who are breastfeeding two to three times a day or who are still drinking formula don't necessarily also need to drink cow's milk. They do, however, likely need extra vitamin D if they are breastfeeding and not getting vitamin D from another source.

How Much Milk Do Kids Need?

  • 1 to 2 years old: 2 cups of milk each day
  • 3 years old and older: 3 cups of milk each day

Of course, if your kids don't drink milk, you can substitute other things from the dairy food group, such as cheese and yogurt or other foods high in calcium and vitamin D. Keep in mind that not all yogurts are fortified with vitamin D and most cheeses will not be rich in vitamin D.

Even if your kids (over age 12 months) do drink milk, they will likely also need to eat some other foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D to reach the latest recommended daily allowance of 600 IUs per day for vitamin D.

Using only milk to reach calcium recommendations isn't a wise idea. Drinking more than 3 cups of milk a day can displace other foods in a child's diet, putting them at risk for iron-deficiency anemia as well as other nutrient imbalances.

Milk Allergy and Lactose Intolerance

If your child has a milk allergy and is allergic to milk proteins, then they shouldn't drink milk or consume dairy products made with milk. Children with a milk allergy can develop symptoms ranging from hives to more severe symptoms, such as wheezing, vomiting, diarrhea, or even anaphylaxis.

Children with a milk allergy should strictly avoid all milk and dairy products and instead turn to non-dairy food sources to get enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet. Some kids do outgrow their milk allergy.

More common than a milk allergy is lactose intolerance, in which kids can tolerate some milk products, but develop gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and bloating if they ingest too much or products that are especially high in lactose (the sugar that occurs naturally in animal milk).

Unlike in cases of milk allergy, in which the child reacts to the protein in milk (even tiny amounts), children with lactose intolerance do not have enough of the enzyme necessary to digest lactose.

Children with lactose intolerance can usually tolerate some milk products, though the amount depends on the individual child. For example, a child may only develop symptoms if they have an extra glass of milk, cheese pizza, or ice cream, etc., but they may be fine if they have some milk with cereal.

Yogurt typically has less lactose, because the fermentation process reduces it. Aged cheese has almost no lactose. There are also cow's milk and cow's milk products that have the enzyme that breaks down lactose (lactase) added to them, so these products do not contain any lactose.

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Additional Reading
  • AAP. Calcium Requirements of Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Pediatrics Vol. 104 No. 5 November 1999

  • AAP Clinical Report. Optimizing Bone Health in Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics Volume 134, Number 4, October 2014

  • Abrams, Steven A. Dietary Guidelines for Calcium and Vitamin D: A New Era. Pediatrics Volume 127, Number 3, March 2011

  • American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report. Lipid Screening and Cardiovascular Health in Childhood. Pediatrics Vol. 122 No. 1 July 2008, pp. 198-208.

  • Maguire, Jonathon L. MD, MSc, FRCPC. The Relationship Between Cow’s Milk and Stores of Vitamin D and Iron in Early Childhood. Pediatrics 2013;131:e144–e151