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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Whether it is an infant who is drinking breast milk or an iron-fortified baby formula that is based on cow's milk or soy milk, a preschooler drinking chocolate milk, or a teenager drinking low-fat milk, milk is an important part of child nutrition. After all, milk has even had its own food group.

In addition to providing children with a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients to keep kids healthy, milk is especially important to help build and maintain strong bones.

Types of Milk

Although most parents think of cow's milk when they think of milk, there are actually a wide variety of milk and other non-dairy milk drinks that can usually substitute for milk.

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

  • whole milk
  • reduced fat (2 percent), low-fat (1 percent) and fat-free or skim cow's milk
  • organic milk
  • flavored milk, such as chocolate milk and strawberry milk
  • rice milk
  • almond milk
  • soy milk
  • goat's milk
  • coconut milk
  • condensed milk
  • evaporated milk
  • raw milk (experts recommend that children should not drink raw milk though, which is unpasteurized and isn't fortified with extra vitamin D.)

Some people are even drinking hemp milk these days.

Nutrition in Milk

Many kids don't drink enough milk, which is unfortunate because fortified milk is a good source of many important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.

Cow's milk is usually considered a key part of a healthy diet for kids, as it provides those children with a good source of:

Also, kids who drink milk are not as likely to drink other less nutritious drinks, such as soda and fruit drinks.

If you are giving your child a non-dairy milk drink, be sure to check the label to make sure it is fortified or enriched with all of the vitamins and minerals found in cows milk. Also, be aware that except for soy milk, most plant milks are very low in protein.

Milk Recommendations for Kids

In general, toddlers should drink whole cow's milk if they don't have a milk allergy after they are 12 months old. They should then switch to reduced-fat milk once they are two years old. Overweight toddlers can switch to low-fat milk even earlier though, after their first birthday.

Keep in mind that toddlers who are breastfeeding two to three times a day or who are still drinking a toddler formula don't necessarily also need to drink milk. They do likely need extra vitamin D though if they are breastfeeding and not getting vitamin D from another source.

How much milk do your kids need?

It depends on how old they are, but the usual recommendations are that children who are:

  • 2-8 years old drink 2 cups of milk each day
  • 9-18 years old drink 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.

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 IU per day for vitamin D.

Drinking too much milk isn't a good idea though. In addition to the extra calories, drinking too much milk is a risk for iron deficiency anemia.

Calories From Milk

Getting too many calories is a problem for many overweight kids. In addition to getting enough physical activity each day, these children often need to decrease their portion sizes and cut back on some calories.

Eliminating milk because of the worry about the calories in milk is usually not a good idea though. Instead, you should switch your child from whole milk to low-fat or reduced-fat milk.

A quick comparison of milk nutrition labels (per 8-ounce serving) shows how many calories your kids will get from drinking each type of milk:

  • Whole milk - 150 Calories - 8g Fat
  • 2 percent milk - 120 Calories - 5g Fat
  • 1 percent milk - 100 Calories - 2.5g Fat
  • Skim milk - 80 Calories - 0g Fat

Milk Allergy

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

Children with a true milk allergy should turn to non-dairy food sources to get enough calcium and vitamin D in their diet. They should also avoid all milk and dairy products until they hopefully outgrow their milk allergy.

More common than a milk allergy is a lactose intolerance, in which kids can tolerate some milk products, but develop gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, and bloating, but only if they drink too many milk products.

Unlike in cases of milk allergy, in which the child has a problem with protein in the milk (even tiny amounts), children with a lactose intolerance have a problem digesting lactose, the sugar in milk.

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 he has an extra glass of milk, cheese pizza, or ice cream, etc., but he is fine if he has milk with cereal.

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Article Sources

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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