Non-Dairy Milks and Child's Development

Little African American boy drinking fresh milk from a glass.

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Having a glass of milk with every meal used to be a childhood staple. Milk was encouraged for healthy bones, teeth, and growth, and many adults remember their parents encouraging them to drink their milk at dinner time as part of a balanced diet. But cow's milk has fallen in popularity lately, as more families are leading dairy-free lifestyles, either because of personal preference—such as a vegan diet—or as a result of food allergies.

The "old-school" way of parenting might have included offering babies either breast milk or formula up until around the age of 1. At that point, it would be common for whole cow's milk to be introduced as the main drink for your toddler.

Now, however, some babies may never have cow's milk, and some babies have dairy-free formula right from infancy. There are now more dairy-free milk options than ever before on the market, including options like almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk. And as more children grow up with non-dairy milks as part of their diets, doctors are looking at how non-dairy milk may affect children's growth and development. Studies are still emerging about the long-term effects of non-dairy milk, but so far, here are a few findings that can give us some insight into how non-dairy milk may affect a child's growth and development.

Non-Dairy Milk May Affect Growth

A 2017 study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lower heights were observed in children who did not drink dairy cow's milk. Researchers examined 5,034 healthy children in Canada who were between the ages of 24 and 72 months and compared children who regularly drank cow's milk with those who did not. They found that there was a correlation between lower height and non-cow's milk. For every daily cup of non-cow's milk, children were, on average, 0.4 centimeters shorter. As an example, a 3-year-old who drank 3 cups of cow's milk was 1.5 centimeters taller than a child who drank 3 daily cups of non-cow's milk.

Of course, this study can only show that there is potentially an association between growth and development and the drinking of non-cow's milk, not necessarily that drinking non-dairy milk causes a shorter height. There could be plenty of other factors contributing to the growth difference, which researchers are still looking into in search of more conclusive evidence.

Almond Milk May Be the Best Bet for Babies With Allergies

Some infants have an allergy or intolerance to cow's milk, and it may be difficult for parents to know which type of non-dairy milk is the best choice to replace it. One study found that almond milk may be the most appropriate substitute for infants. Babies with allergies to cows' milk who were given almond milk had better growth outcomes than infants who were given either a specialized non-dairy protein formula or a soy-based formula.

Soy Milk May Help With Chronic Constipation

Chronic constipation can be an issue for some children, and one study found that soy milk may help younger children who are facing this difficulty. Although soy has been under scrutiny, for children with constipation under the age of 15 months, a soy-based formula has been associated with helping to relieve the condition. In contrast, cow's-milk based formula can make constipation worse for certain kids who struggle with regular constipation.

A Word From Verywell

We don't fully know all of the ways that non-dairy milk affects children's growth and development. For some families, cow's milk is simply not an option due to food allergies, while for other families, dietary preferences may limit the use of cow's milk. If you are limiting milk in your child's diet to strictly non-dairy options, speak to your child's pediatrician about the best ways to ensure your child is getting the nutrition, especially calcium, that he or she needs through other sources in their diet.

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  1. Morency ME, Birken CS, Lebovic G, et al. Association between noncow milk beverage consumption and childhood height. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;106(2):597-602. doi:10.3945/ajcn.117.156877

  2. Salpietro CD, Gangemi S, Briuglia S, et al. The almond milk: a new approach to the management of cow-milk allergy/intolerance in infants. Minerva Pediatr. 2005;57(4):173-80.

  3. Iacono G, Cavataio F, Montalto G, et al. Intolerance of cow's milk and chronic constipation in children. N Engl J Med. 1998 Oct 15; 339:1100–4. doi:10.1136/ebn.2.3.76

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