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 to promote healthy bones, teeth, and growth. Many adults remember their parents encouraging them to drink their milk at dinner as part of a balanced diet.

Cow's milk has become less popular as more families decide to lead dairy-free lifestyles, either because of personal preference (such as a vegan diet) or food allergies.

The "old-school" way of parenting often included offering babies either breast milk or formula up until about the age of one year. After a child's first birthday, whole cow's milk was commonly introduced as the main drink for toddlers.

Today, some babies may never have cow's milk, as some babies have dairy-free formula right from infancy. There are more dairy-free options than ever before including options like almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk.

As more kids grow up with non-dairy milk in their diets, doctors and researchers are looking at how non-dairy milk might affect children's health as they grow.

Studies are still emerging about the long-term effects of these milk alternatives, but here's what we have learned so far about how non-dairy milk could affect a child's growth and development.

Non-Dairy Milk and Child Development

A 2017 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that lower heights were observed in children who did not drink traditional cow's milk.

The researchers examined 5,034 healthy children in Canada between the ages of 24 and 72 months. When they compared children who regularly drank cow's milk with those who did not, the researchers found that there was a correlation between lower height and the consumption of non-cow's milk.

For every daily cup of non-cow's milk they drank, the children were 0.4 centimeters shorter on average. For example, a 3-year-old who drank three cups of cow's milk might be 1.5 centimeters taller than a child who drank three cups of non-cow's milk a day.

However, it's important to remember that the findings in this study only demonstrate that there is a potential association between decreased linear growth and drinking milk. It certainly does not prove that drinking non-cow's milk causes children to be shorter.

Many factors influence growth differences in children. Researchers are still searching for conclusive evidence of an association between milk intake and childhood growth and development.

Almond Milk and Allergies

When infants have an allergy or intolerance to cow's milk, it can be difficult for their parents to know which type of non-dairy milk is the best choice to replace it.

One study conducted in 5- to 9-month-olds found that almond milk might be the most appropriate substitute for cow's milk during infancy. 

The study found that infants 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 and Chronic Constipation

Chronic constipation is a health issue for some children that often requires parents to pay special attention to their child's diet. One study found that soy milk could help younger children with chronic constipation.

Children under the age of 15 months who struggle with chronic constipation may benefit from a soy-based formula. In contrast, formulas including cow's milk can worsen symptoms in children with chronic constipation.

A Word From Verywell

We don't fully know all of the ways in which non-dairy milk affects children's growth and development. For some families, cow's milk is simply not an option because a child has food allergies. For other families, dietary preferences may limit the use of cow's milk.

If your family needs to stick to strictly non-dairy options for milk products, talk to your child's pediatrician. If they won't be drinking cow's milk, you'll need to ensure that they are getting key nutrients (such as calcium) from 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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