Ten years ago, it was straightforward, parents introduced cows’ milk at some point after their child’s first birthday or continued to breastfeed. Today, there is an overwhelming number of milks and milk alternatives available and lots of opinions about which ones are best for your toddler. Some of this information (or misinformation!) comes from ‘wellness bloggers’ and ‘clean eating’ enthusiasts and more from baby milk companies. But nutrition-wise, most milk alternatives aren’t a straight swap for cows’ milk. Before you choose for your toddler, lets look at the facts.
Toddlers need up to 600mls of milk per day. If your toddler is eating yogurt and cheese, then 2 beakers of milk a day (150-200mls) will be plenty. Many toddlers fill up on too much milk which can affect how much they eat.
Cows’ milk is a well-known source of energy, calcium and protein as well other vitamins and minerals such as phosphorous, potassium, iodine and vitamin B12, all of which are important nutrients for your growing toddler.
Full fat, low fat or skimmed cows’ milk?
Children have higher energy needs than adults and so need full fat milk until they are at least 2 years old. At this point you can switch to low fat milk. Low fat milk is simply full fat milk with a little less fat, it contains the same amount of calcium and other nutrients. Skimmed milk can be used after five.
What about non-dairy alternatives?
There has been explosion of non-dairy milks in recent years and they are really trendy right now, often touted as being ‘healthier’ than cow’s milk by ‘wellness gurus’ and ‘clean eaters’ especially on social media. But is this actually the case?
Calcium-fortified soya milk is most like cows’ milk with a similar protein content. It is lower in energy, putting it more in line with low fat cows’ milk than full fat milk, (except for Soya Growing Up milk which has added calories and nutrients).
Milks like oat milk, hemp milk, coconut milk and almond milk contain very little protein and are much lower in energy. Almond milk for example, contains only 1 gram of protein per glass compared to 8 grams for cows’ milk, so your toddler would need to drink 250mls of almond milk to get the same energy as found in only 50mls of cows’ milk. If you are using these milks in place of cows’ milk or soya milk you need to be very sure that your child is getting enough energy and protein from the rest of their diet.
Many of these non-dairy ‘milks’ have added sugar, so in the interests of your toddler’s teeth, you should choose unsweetened varieties. None are naturally high in calcium so it’s really important to choose calcium fortified versions. Make sure to give them a good shake before pouring as the calcium can settle on the bottom of the carton. It’s useful to be aware that many ‘organic’ products do not always have added calcium.
Rice milk isn’t suitable for children under 5 years as it contains small amounts of inorganic arsenic.
What about if your child is allergic to cow’s milk?
It’s common for babies with cows’ milk protein allergy (CMPA) to remain on a hypoallergenic infant formula until they are 2. Depending on your toddler’s diet it may be possible for them to use a non-dairy milk alternative after 12 months old, but it’s best to discuss this with a registered dietitian.
Goats’ milk has a similar nutrition profile to dairy milk and so isn’t suitable for those who are allergic to cows’ milk. Pasteurised goats’ milk is fine to use as a cows’ milk alternative for children without a CMPA.
Lactose free milk
As the name suggests, this is cows’ milk with the lactose removed (milk sugar). Contrary to popular opinion, lactose intolerance is very rare in Irish children. Although it can occur temporarily after gastroenteritis, it generally resolves after a few weeks, making lactose free milk generally unnecessary for young children.
How do toddler milk and growing up milks differ from cows’ milk?
Growing up milks generally contain more sugar than cows’ milk and less of some important nutrients such as riboflavin, calcium and iodine. Extra nutrients like Iron and Vitamin D are often added to toddler milks but they do not replace all the nutrients lost in processing. Experts agree that young children do not need these ‘growing up’ milks.
OK, so what’s the bottom line?
Before 2 years of age, the most suitable milks for your child’s growth and development are breastmilk, full fat cows’ milk (or goats or sheep’s) or an infant formula (if needed for medical reasons). Once children turn 2 they can be offered a milk alternative; fortified soya milk being the best option. It’s important to remember that toddlers and children are not ‘mini-adults’ and what is often touted as a ‘healthy option’ for an adult might not be the best choice for your young child!
It is advisable to consult with a registered dietitian before excluding a food group (like dairy) from your child’s diet.
Caroline O’Connor, Solid Start, is a registered dietitian and mum of 4. She sees clients in the Children’s clinic by appointment. If you would like to make an appointment, contact Caroline @www.solidstart.ie. Solid Start also offer Baby Weaning Classes and Happy, Healthy Eating for Toddlers and Young Children.