Toddler Milk and Calcium Requirements

Girl holding glass of milk at home

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Is it necessary for toddlers to drink milk? Milk contains nutrients that are important for toddler growth and development, like vitamin D, calcium, and protein. Milk is also a versatile ingredient that can easily be added to foods like smoothies or oatmeal, making it a simple way for toddlers to get these essential nutrients.

However, parents don't need to depend only on one single source to get these nutrients. There are other dairy products, aside from liquid milk, like cheese, yogurt, kefir, and others. There are also calcium and vitamin D fortified dairy alternatives. So, depending on allergies, preferences, and access, you may include many different sources of these nutrients in your child's diet.

How Much Calcium Do Toddlers Need?

The RDA (recommended daily allowance) for calcium is 700mg for children ages 1-3. There are a variety of foods that can provide calcium so that you can meet this target every day.

  • 1/2 cup cubed firm tofu made with calcium, 250mg
  • 4 ounces fortified almond milk, 200-225mg
  • 1 ounce cheese, 200mg
  • 4 ounces plain kefir, 200mg
  • 4 ounces plain yogurt; 200mg
  • 4 ounces whole milk, 135mg
  • 1/4 cup cooked soybeans, 65mg
  • 1/4 cup cooked spinach, 60mg

In general, if you can fit 2-3 of the higher calcium foods (about 200mg per serving) into a toddler's day then chances are, between all of their other choices, they're meeting their calcium needs.

Does My Toddler Need a Calcium Supplement?

It can be more difficult for a child to meet their daily calcium needs through food alone if they have lactose intolerance, milk allergy, or if they do not like dairy products.

If a child has a milk allergy, then they will need to depend on non-dairy food sources of calcium, like fortified dairy alternative milks and yogurts as well as firm tofu made with calcium, dark leafy greens, and beans.

For toddlers who can digest dairy, but don't gravitate towards it, cooking oatmeal with milk, using yogurt as the base for smoothies, making ice pops with flavored yogurt, using milk to make creamy soups, or adding cheese to sandwiches, can be ways to include dairy into their day in a way that may be more acceptable to them.

In any of the above situations, keeping track of about how many servings of the higher calcium foods a toddler is eating each day can be helpful in determining if they need a supplement, and, if so, how much additional calcium they need.

A pediatric registered dietitian can be helpful in helping you figure out how much supplemental calcium may be needed while also encouraging ways to get appropriate calcium-rich foods into your toddler's daily choices.

If your toddler takes a multivitamin, you can check to see how much calcium it contains. Typically, calcium is a very bulky mineral so there's not room for much more than 100mg or so in a multivitamin. So, even if your child takes a multivitamin, if they're not meeting calcium needs with food, they may need an additional calcium supplement.

Also, according to the AAP, children who don't drink 500 ml (about 17 ounces) of milk each day and who do not get regular sunlight exposure should get 200 IU of Vitamin D each day.

Milk Alternatives for Toddlers

If your child can tolerate dairy but doesn't care for the flavor or texture of milk, including things like cheese, kefir, and yogurt in their meals and snacks offers a major calcium boost. If they cannot tolerate dairy, or do not enjoy it, one alternative is to give your child fortified dairy alternative milks, like soy, almond, oat, or cashew.

However, keep in mind that these options do not have the protein or fat content that dairy milk does (soy comes the closest regarding protein) and it isn't recommended to limit a child's fat intake in the toddler years. So a child drinking a dairy alternative will need to get fat and protein from other foods in their diet. Other sources of fat include avocado, nuts and seeds, oils used in cooking, and butter. Protein can be found in beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, poultry, fish, red meat, whole grains, and eggs.

As for milks that come from animals other than cows (such as goat's milk) just like cow's milk this is discouraged for children under age 12 months because it lacks iron, folate and vitamin B12 that human milk or formula provide. But pasteurized and fortified goat's milk can be given to older children. However, if your child is allergic to or doesn't tolerate cow's milk, then they are likely to have similar reactions to goat's milk, as they share many of the same proteins and both have lactose.

By Vincent Iannelli, MD
Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.