Choosing a milk for your toddler can be a challenge—the dairy aisles have exploded with options! So if you worry that your toddler isn't drinking enough milk, is drinking too much milk, or is maybe not drinking the "right" kind of milk, stay tuned. We’ll cover grass-fed milk, dairy milk, the most popular nondairy milks, newer pea protein milks, and important facts to help you know which kind of milk is best for toddlers. (Updated January 2018.)
What's the Best Milk for Toddlers?
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that toddlers drink whole dairy milk since they need the fat for proper development of their brains and nervous systems.
- After a child turns one, they are better able to digest cow's milk—which is why it's not recommended for babies until their first birthday.
- A study published in 2016 found that full fat dairy including milk, cheese, and yogurt was protective against type 2 diabetes—meaning that it helped to lower risks of developing the disease.
How Much Milk Should My Toddler Drink?
The AAP recommends that toddlers consume 2-3 servings of milk or other dairy products a day. A toddler serving is ½ cup or 4 ounces. As your toddler grows, that serving size may increase to closer to 1 cup. Check the size of the sippy cup or open cup you use for milk—you may be serving more than you realize.
Best Milk for 1 Year Old Babies and Toddlers
Grass-fed dairy milk may have higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids due to the green grass they eat, which can be beneficial to heart health. That said, they are often price prohibitive at 2-3 times the cost of other dairy milks and are not always widely available outside of major metro areas.
Organic milk can be a good option for toddlers. According to the UDSA guidelines: "The USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100% organic feed, and provided animals with access to the outdoors.” The most wildly available milk brands for toddlers include Organic Valley, Horizon, and Stonyfield. Store brands often have competitive prices, so check to see what’s available near you.
Local milk can also be a wonderful option for toddlers, especially since they may contain similar benefits as organic milk. You’ll need to read the label on the ones you find since they can vary widely.
Should My Toddler Have Vat Pasteurized Milk?
You may see the label ”vat pasteurized” to reflect that a milk was heated in small batches at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time—and the milk may come with a layer of cream on top that need to be shaken back into the milk. Many find the flavor of this type of milk, which is safer than raw milk from a food safety perspective, better. These milks often have shorter shelf lives than ultra-pasteurized milk, so be sure to check the label.
Should My Toddler Have Fairlife Milk?
Fairlife, a brand owned by Coca-Cola, is filtered to have more protein and less sugar. Toddlers don’t need extra protein (or to cut carbs) so I wouldn’t go this route.
Should My Toddler Drink rbST-free Milk?
This is a slightly complicated topic. The hormone rbST can increase the amount of milk a cow can produce by 15% (which seems potentially worrisome) and also decrease the amount of feed they need (which is a good thing as far as food supply and cost to farmers goes). The FDA hasn't found any proof that there's harm to human health from drinking milk from cow's who've been given this hormone, but it's banned from use in Canada. (It's also produced by Monsanto.) For anyone looking to avoid added growth hormones in the food they serve their family, you probably want to steer clear.
On a carton or container of milk, the term "milk from cows not treated with rbST" is usually in small type towards the middle or bottom of the front or side of the label. You may want to look for this if you buy conventional milk. Organic milk won't have it per the USDA regulations.
What Non-dairy Milk Substitute is Best for Toddlers?
There are newer plant milks that use pea protein for protein that are excellent milks for toddlers. There’s the Silk Protein Nut Milk, which is very affordable (less than $3 a quart, usually) and has a smooth texture and mild flavor.
Ripple Milk, while usually a little more expensive, is incredibly creamy and delicious and is an excellent option for kids with nut-allergies. Bolthouse Farms also has a newer plant milk option made with pea protein. These options have nutritional profiles that more closely mirrors cow's milk.
Unsweetened flax and hemp milk can also be a good choice since they are naturally full of nutrients, as well as beneficial fatty acids. We like the unsweetened plain and vanilla varieties from Good Karma. They also have a version with added plant protein that's good too. (Their sweetened original is too sweet for toddlers, in my opinion.)
We use all three of those milks, in rotation depending on what I can find at our stores, for smoothies and in baked goods.
Unsweetened soy milk is also similar to cow’s milk in terms of nutrition and can be a good milk for toddlers who don’t have an issue tolerating soy. (I know that there has been some concern about soy consumption over the years, but if used in moderation like all other foods, it can be a good option.)
The vast majority of nondairy milk, including almond, cashew, and rice, contain little nutrition on their own. While most are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, few contain any protein or fat. I think of them like water. Good for hydration, not much of a source of anything else.
Buy Unsweetened Non-dairy Milks for Toddlers
Sweetened nondairy milks can contain whopping amounts of added sugars. Look for labels that specifically say “unsweetened”. Otherwise, your toddler may get upwards of 15 grams of sugar in a cup (kids under two aren’t supposed to have any added sugars; kids over two are supposed to have 25 grams or less of added sugars).
Which Milk is Best for Toddlers with Nut Allergies?
From the nondairy milks above, Ripple, Good Karma, Bolthouse Farms, and soy milks are good options for a toddler with a nut allergy. (Rice milk is also usually nut-free, though it doesn't have much nutrition to speak of.) These are also great options if you need a nut-free nondairy option to send to daycare or preschool. Be sure to double check labels to confirm that the one you choose is nut-free.
What’s the Best Milk for 2 and 3 Year Olds?
The AAP recommends that kids over 2 switch to low fat milk—despite research that that might not be the best idea for long-term health goals. A study published in 2013 by the found that kids who drank 1% milk had higher BMIs than those who drank whole or 2% milk. Many studies have also shown that all of us are fuller after eating higher fat dairy products and therefore may eat less overall. If you have questions about the type of dairy milk to offer your 2 or 3 year old, bring it up with your pediatrician.
Do kids really need to drink milk?
Nope! Toddlers can get the nutrients from milk in other dairy like cheese, yogurt, and kefir. The goal should be 2-3 servings of dairy a day, which may (or may not) include milk.
What are good sources of calcium for my toddler besides dairy products and milk?
If your kiddo doesn't like dairy or nondairy milk, cheese or yogurt, try to include these foods.
For calcium, kale, broccoli, bok choy, almonds/almond butter, canned salmon (with bones, so you need to crush them when mixing into salmon salad or patties), sesame seeds/ tahini, chia seeds, and tofu are good sources.
For Vitamin D, salmon, tuna, fortified oj, egg yolk, fortified cereal. (You may need to double check labels on breakfast cereals and fortified juices if you go that route to know what you're getting.)
Can My Toddler Drink Too Much Milk?
Short answer: Yes. Milk is often a reason that a toddler won’t be hungry for a meal. Milk is food after all and it can be very filling. A toddler can down 4-8 ounces of milk really quickly, especially when drinking from a sippy cup…and especially if drinking from a sippy cup and doing other things at the same time (walking, watching a screen, etc). If your toddler isn’t wanting to eat much food, try cutting down on the amount of milk you offer and how frequently you offer it.
Bottomline on Toddlers and Milk
Your toddler should eat a range of dairy products to get lots of nutrition (and probiotics from foods like yogurt and aged cheeses) from their foods, not just milk. If they eat other dairy or don't like dairy, it's okay. You might want to consider alternating milk and water at meals and snacks throughout the day to ensure that your little one has space in their belly for food. And if you go with non-dairy milk, reach for unsweetened versions when possible to limit added sugars.