A Toddler's Serving Size of Milk

There can be too much or too little

Asian boy drinking milk.

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A fair amount of your toddler's nutrition and calories will come from milk. Still, if you're not careful, your toddler can also get too many calories from milk. It may be helpful to measure the amount of milk you give your child and compare it to a typical serving of milk for a toddler.

How Much Milk to Give a Toddler

Your toddler needs two cups of dairy per day. One cup is equivalent to:

  • 8 ounces of milk
  • 8 ounces of yogurt
  • 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheeses like Swiss or cheddar
  • 1/3 cup shredded hard cheese
  • 2 ounces of American cheese
  • 1/2 cup Ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 2 cups cottage cheese
  • 1 cup of pudding made with milk
  • 1 cup frozen yogurt
  • 1 1/2 cups ice cream

If milk is the only dairy consumed, your toddler would need two cups per day. But it doesn't need to be consumed at one time, and a variety of dairy foods is often best.

A typical sippy cup will hold 10 or more ounces (so, more than one cup) and most milk boxes hold eight ounces. Rather than try to get all this milk at one sitting, try splitting it up into several servings or make choices that split the day's servings between milk and something with less volume, like cheese.

Types of Milk for Your Toddler

Until your child is 2 years old, you should offer whole milk. At 2 years of age, you can switch to low-fat or even fat-free milk.

There has been some new discussion about giving whole milk to toddlers, including a study that showed that even children under 2 might benefit from less fat in milk (or at the very least, not be harmed).

Experts suggest that most toddlers are getting enough fat from other sources in their diet. For this reason, concerns about the fat present in whole milk are primarily related to toddlers who are already overweight or at risk of becoming overweight at the 12-month mark. Before making any changes in diet, talk to your doctor about your toddler's specific needs if you are worried about obesity.

Try to offer milk at snack times and between meals. If you offer your toddler a full 8 ounces of milk before dinner, you'll probably notice that he's not too hungry afterward and will barely touch his meal. Just one-third of a cup of grated cheese counts as a serving of milk, so you might try sprinkling cheese over veggies, pasta, rice or meat, offering water with the meal and then offering some milk afterward if you still have room for another milk serving.

Shelf-stable milk boxes, such as the ones from Horizon Organics, are becoming very popular, since they don't require refrigeration. Choose carefully, however. Horizon's reduced-fat box contains 120 calories and 12 grams of sugar, while the strawberry version contains 200 calories and 31 grams of sugar. Since most toddlers should only consume around 1,000 calories a day, choosing to fulfill the milk requirement with strawberry milk would add 160 empty calories to your toddler's day.

The same is true of yogurt. If you choose original, flavored Yoplait yogurt, a single serving (it's about 6 ounces) doesn't provide a full serving of milk, but your toddler will consume 150 calories and 27 grams of sugar.

Kid versions or whipped varieties of yogurt may not represent the healthiest choice either. Many provide added sugars (some in the form of high fructose corn syrup), artificial colors, and thickeners like corn starch.

An 8-ounce tub of plain, unflavored yogurt provides 140 to 160 calories and just 11 grams of naturally occurring sugars. The only ingredients are whole milk and cultures. Pair it with fruit to fulfill your toddler's fruit requirement and add brown rice syrup (which releases its sugars slowly) or another sweetener if your toddler has room for some of those extra calories. It's better to control the amount and type of sugar yourself than to let someone else do it for you.

Milk Allergies

If your child is allergic to milk, you will need to consider other sources for nutrients like calcium. Talk with your health care provider, since many children who have a milk sensitivity or who are lactose intolerant can still tolerate things like cheese and yogurt. Some children with a cow's milk allergy can also sometimes tolerate milk from other animals.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a parenting writer with experience in the Head Start program and in NAEYC accredited child care centers.