"How much milk should my child drink?" is a question I get asked time and time again — and for good reason. Marketing from the dairy industry combined with conflicting advice from friends and pediatricians leaves many parents confused.
Some parents have kids who can't get enough milk and worry about them overdoing it. Others have kids who hate milk and worry their little ones are missing out on essential nutrients like calcium.
First, the basics. "The recommended amount of milk for kids to be drinking varies by age," says Lauren Torrisi-Gorra, MS, RD, a Sarah Wragge Wellness coach and a registered dietitian nutritionist based in New Jersey. "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two to three cups of cow's milk per day for children ages 12 to 24 months, and two to 2.5 cups per day for children ages 2 to 5 years old."
There are plenty of reasons to hit that target. "Whole milk provides a lot of important nutrients for kids, such as fat, protein, calcium, and vitamin D," Torrisi-Gorra says. Additionally, she says, "There are some risks associated with not drinking milk. One study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that children who avoided drinking cow's milk were at an increased risk of fracture."
But you don't want to go too far. "Researchers found that an increase in milk consumption was associated with lower iron levels," Torrisi-Gorra says. "This is because calcium can actually inhibit iron absorption."
If you prefer to avoid cow's milk altogether, there are other sources of calcium, such as kale. But although kids can easily absorb calcium from the leafy greens, one cup has just 52 milligrams of calcium, and the National Institutes of Health state that kids aged 1 to 3 need about 700 milligrams a day, Torrisi-Gorra points out. To compare, a cup of milk provides 306 milligrams. So, she says, "While it's true kids don't need milk to survive, it may be difficult to meet their nutritional needs without dairy in some form — whether it be milk, yoghurt, or kefir."
That said, plenty of parents have completely valid reasons for wanting to steer clear of cow's milk. Before I started on my wellness journey, I struggled with this topic myself. I became curious about what I was consuming, and I started to be my own health advocate. This is how I learned about the inhumane treatment of the cows that provide milk and about how milk contains hormones. (There's no clear evidence that these hormones affect kids' health, but it's still enough to make me wary.) So with my own kids, I've chosen to ensure they get nutrients like calcium and vitamin D from alternative sources.
At the Wragge house, my kids drink organic almond milk. Our favourite brands include Three Wishes and Malk. One thing to note about milk substitutes is that "they'll most likely be lacking in protein and fat," Torrisi-Gorra says. Some plant-based milks are calcium fortified, but if not you'll want to be mindful about the rest of your child's diet to make sure they're getting enough of those nutrients elsewhere.
As parents, we make sure that our kids are eating plenty of calcium-rich foods, including seeds, beans, lentils, almonds, and leafy greens. I sneak spinach and kale into my kids' smoothies to help boost their calcium intake for the day.
And while I don't serve my kids cow's milk, I do incorporate some dairy into their diets. I just try to make conscious choices about the dairy that they do have. My kids love to eat pizza, so we'll use a pasture-raised shredded mozzarella cheese, like Organic Valley.
With summer on the horizon, there's always the occasional treat of ice cream. The ice cream sandwiches from Van Leeuwen are some of our favourites.
I also give them yoghurt pouches — we like the brand Siggi's, which is low sugar — and kefir, usually from Maple Hill. That way, I know they're getting some good probiotics.
The bottom line is, milk can be a great source of nutrients, but it isn't the best choice for every family. "If you choose not to give your children milk, speak to your doctor about whether they need a calcium supplement. Supplements can be a great insurance policy if you don't think your child is getting enough calcium," Torrisi-Gorra suggests.
And if you do choose to give your kids milk, it's the sourcing and quality of the product that really matters. Choose grass-fed, organic milk wherever possible. Grass-fed milk has omega-3 fatty acids which play an important role in brain function, especially in children.
Sarah Wragge is the chief holistic nutritionist and CEO of Sarah Wragge Wellness and a mom of two.