When we think of calcium, we often think of bones which is why it is such a crucial nutrient for kids. Calcium is also used in other processes throughout the body and is actually the most abundant mineral in our bodies (1). Even if your child doesn’t like milk, they can still get all the calcium they need from other sources.
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What does calcium do?
We store calcium in our bones and teeth and it is what gives them their structure and hardness (2). It also helps our muscles move and helps our nerves send messages throughout the body. Lastly, it’s involved with blood clotting and hormonal secretion as well.
98% of our calcium stores are in our bones (3). Our bones are constantly getting broken down and rebuilt which allows calcium into and out of the bone. This bone remodeling is important for changing bone size during growth, but also to repair damage, maintain calcium levels, and provide a source of other minerals (4).
Where can you get calcium?
We most often think of milk, yogurt, and cheese as sources of calcium, because they make up the bulk of the calcium intake in the United States. There are many other foods that contain calcium though. Fish with bones will contain calcium from the bones. Certain vegetables will also contain calcium. Currently, they have started adding calcium to beverages such as juices and milk substitutes. Some brands of tofu will also have added calcium.
Calcium is often found in standard multivitamins. Calcium carbonate is best absorbed when taken with food (5), whereas calcium citrate can be taken with food or on an empty stomach. Over the counter antacids like Tums and Rolaids contain calcium as well.
The recommended intakes are based on the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). The RDA is estimated to meet the needs of 97-98% of all healthy individuals (6). These levels were determined to promote bone accumulation and positive calcium balance. For infants 0-12 months, the recommended amounts are based on the amounts in breastmilk (7).
|0-6 months||200 mg|
|7-12 months||260 mg|
|1-3 years||700 mg|
|4-8 years||1000 mg|
|9-13 years||1300 mg|
Per the National Institute of Health (8)
What happens if you don’t get enough?
People who don’t drink milk or eat dairy products must make an effort to get calcium from other sources. It is completely possible to get enough calcium without any milk, but you will need to make sure that you are adding in calcium fortified foods, supplements, or other foods with calcium in them.
Our bodies do a really good job of maintaining the calcium levels in our blood. Because of that, serum calcium doesn’t usually show a calcium deficiency. However, you can measure the biologically active form of calcium or look at bone mineral density to assess calcium status over the lifetime.
Getting too little calcium can lead to osteoporosis later in life, rickets, and osteomalacia. In all these diseases, the bones are softer and weaker which can lead to increased falls and other problems.
Can you get too much?
There is some research that suggests that high calcium intakes may increase the risk of heart disease and prostate cancer (9). For kids, high calcium intake, especially from dairy, is associated with increased risk of iron deficiency anemia. We recommend to limit milk intake to no more than 16-24 ounces for toddlers to help prevent this.
Tolerable upper limits have been established for kids: 1000 mg for 0-6 months; 1500 mg for 7-12 months, and 2500 mg for children 1-8 years.
Calcium Rich Foods for Kids
- bok choy
- chia seeds
- cottage cheese
- fortified breakfast cereal
- fortified orange juice
- frozen yogurt
- pinto beans
- salmon (with bones)
- sardines (with bones)
- sour cream
- soy beans
- soy milk
- tofu (with calcium0
- whole wheat bread
Grains do not contain high levels of calcium (unless they are fortified), but do contribute to overall calcium consumptions, because they are consumed frequently. There are other foods that may be fortified with calcium. You can check the label to determine if it has been added.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.