How Much Milk Should a Toddler Drink?

Risks of Toddlers drinking too much milk

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Milk is a nutritious part of a healthy diet for children. It is an excellent source of protein, fat, potassium, vitamin D, and calcium for those children who don't have a milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance.

However, your child can get too much of a good thing. You can make sure your child is drinking healthy amounts of milk by following toddler dietary guidelines as well as any specific recommendations your pediatrician makes for your child.

From birth through the first year, breast milk (or formula) is the perfect drink for your baby, containing the ideal balance of fat and nutrients your child needs.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in 2020 by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS), recommend that babies older than 12 months transition from drinking breast milk or formula to cow's milk, although it is fine to continue breastfeeding longer if desired.

The amount and type of milk that a toddler should drink varies by age.

How Much Milk Should a 1-Year-Old Drink?

While the Dietary Guidelines do not advise cow's milk or plant-based milk beverages as a replacement for breast milk or formula for babies under 12 months, cow's milk offers significant nutritional benefits after that age. Milk contains protein, calcium, potassium, and vitamin D that growing toddlers need.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend that children age 12 to 24 months drink 14–16 ounces (up to 2 cups) of whole milk per day.

Some toddlers don't like cow's milk at first. To increase their acceptance, try offering a mixture of milk with breast milk or formula, gradually increasing the ratio until you're serving straight cow's milk.

If cow's milk is not tolerated by your child (due to preference or allergy), the Dietary Guidelines recommend using fortified, unsweetened soy milk instead.

Other plant-based milk beverages—such as those made from almond, coconut, hemp, oat, and rice—are not recommended for toddlers, as they do not usually contain as much protein as cow and soy milk and may not be fortified with vitamin D and calcium.

When milk is introduced beginning at 12 months, the Dietary Guidelines recommend offering it in an open cup.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommend that children over the age of 12 months be offered primarily water and milk. Fruit juice should be limited to no more than 4 ounces per day, if at all. Chocolate milk and other beverages with added flavors, sugars, or caffeine should also be avoided.

Some doctors suggest serving children who are 1 year and older lowfat or nonfat milk if they have a family history of obesity or heart disease. However, the AAFP generally recommends whole milk for these children instead, as some studies show that the early introduction of lowfat milk may actually increase the risk of developing obesity.

How Much Milk Should a 2-Year-Old Drink?

Between 24 and 36 months, toddlers should transition to lowfat or nonfat milk and can drink 2 to 2.5 cups (up to 20 ounces) per day.

While the Dietary Guidelines suggest that 2-year-olds can have up to 20 ounces of milk per day, it may be a good idea to begin limiting milk consumption—particularly if your child is a voracious milk drinker—so it doesn't interfere with the development of healthy eating habits. Some 2-year-olds, particularly picky eaters, may choose milk to the exclusion of other nutrient-dense foods.

Limiting milk consumption while introducing a varied, healthy diet can help kids develop better eating habits. However, the AAFP notes that if your child is eating a nutritious diet, developing normally, and does not have a family history of obesity, it's fine for them to consume up to the recommended daily amount of milk.

Risks of Toddlers Drinking Too Much Milk

While milk is a nutritious beverage for toddlers, consuming too much can be unhealthy. Below are the main risks of drinking too much.

Constipation

One common problem that occurs when kids drink too much milk is constipation. Because milk is filling but does not contain fiber, children may become constipated by drinking too much milk and eating fewer fiber-containing foods. This can especially be a problem for toddlers who drink more than 16 to 20 ounces of milk each day.

Milk Anemia

Toddlers who drink excessive amounts of milk are also at risk for iron deficiency anemia. Again, this is because milk only contains trace amounts of iron and may displace iron-rich foods in the diet. If the anemia is severe, an iron supplement may be required.

Poor Eating Habits

Another concern with toddlers drinking too much milk is excessive calorie intake. This problem is magnified if they continue to drink whole milk past age 2. These extra calories usually either cause a child to be full and not want to eat other nutritious foods, or if they are still eating well, then the extra calories can lead to weight gain.

How Too Much Milk Can Cause Obesity

If a child drinks 32 to 48 ounces of whole milk each day, at 19 calories per ounce they are getting about 600 to 900 calories just from milk. This equals 50–65% of the estimated 1300 calories that a toddler needs each day, making it easy for a child to take in too many calories.

If your child also drinks a lot of juice, they could be getting almost all of the calories they need from milk and juice. The problem is that a diet primarily made up of milk and juice does not provide the right combination of fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals needed for healthy growth and development.

How to Decrease Milk Consumption

As long as your child is eating well and does not have a problem with constipation, anemia, or excess weight gain, as noted above, it's healthy for them to drink milk (up to the recommended 20 ounce maximum) if that’s what they enjoy.

However, if you are concerned that your child is drinking too much milk or if they are at risk of any of the above issues, there are things that you can do to decrease your toddler’s milk consumption.

  • Gradually reduce milk intake: One easy way to cut back on your child's milk intake is to simply not fill their cup completely. Instead of 8 ounces in the cup, only put in 5 or 6 ounces. You can also offer water instead.
  • Model healthy behaviors: Your child watches and learns from your behaviors. If you eat a healthy diet and limit your own milk consumption (and don't overdo less healthy drinks like juice or sodas), your child will be more likely to do the same.
  • Offer a variety of healthy meals and snacks: Serving other nutritious food options can encourage your child to opt for eating more of their calories rather than drinking them.
  • Switch to lower fat milk: Offering lowfat or nonfat milk can decrease your child's fat and calorie intake even if they continue to drink a bit more milk than is ideal.
  • Talk to your doctor about food aversions: Ask for extra help if your child doesn't seem to eat foods with texture and prefers to drink all of their calories, as they might have a food aversion.

In addition to limiting juice intake, other drinks that should be avoided by toddlers include caffeinated, sugary, sports, and artificially sweetened beverages.

A Word From Verywell

Milk can be a healthy and important part of your toddler’s diet, as long as they are not having any negative repercussions to their health and nutritional status.

However, it's important to pay attention to your child’s eating habits, follow your pediatrician’s nutritional recommendations, and talk to your doctor if you suspect your child may be drinking milk to the exclusion of other foods.

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Article Sources
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  3. Ziegler EE. Consumption of cow’s milk as a cause of iron deficiency in infants and toddlers. Nutr Rev. 2011;69 Suppl 1:S37-42. doi:10.1111/j.1753-4887.2011.00431.x

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