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Milk Alternatives for Toddlers

Around age 1, most parents are advised to switch from formula or breast milk to cow’s milk. There are many reasons why families may not want or be able to offer cow’s milk and are looking for milk alternatives. There is no food that your child NEEDS to eat, so if you do not want to offer milk, you do not need to offer an alternative, however you definitely can.

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Why Milk Alternatives

One of the reasons parents may look for an alternative to milk is that their child has cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA). These kids need to avoid milk and all milk products.

Another common reason is that the family does not consume dairy. This could be due to religious reasons or that the family follows a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Lastly, some kids don’t like cow’s milk. Families may be looking for a milk alternative to see if their child prefers the different flavor.

Why Offer Milk At All

Babies are transitioning from a completely liquid diet to a solid diet and milk is a helpful tool in that transition. While it’s not as common in many Western countries, worldwide many kids do not wean from breast milk until much later, so we use cow’s milk as a substitute for breast milk.

Cow’s milk, while not as perfect for humans as human milk, does offer many nutrients. Specifically, it contains calcium, vitamin D, protein, and fat, among other things. These nutrients are all crucial for kids and easily obtainable in milk.

What to Look for in an Alternative

There are a lot of differences between brands, so knowing what to check for can be very helpful. While cow’s milk and the alternatives all have many nutrients other than the ones listed, these are the nutrients to focus on:

  • calcium: 306 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 96 IU/8 oz
  • protein: 8 g/8 oz
  • fat: 8 g/8 oz (whole milk)

Milk Alternatives

Breast Milk

While many people do wean around a year of age, if breast feeding is still working for you and your toddler, you can definitely keep going! According to some research, the natural duration of breastfeeding is between 2.5-7 years (1). The nutrient composition of breastmilk varies wildly, but per the USDA (2), breast milk contains:

  • calcium: 79 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 7 IU/8 oz
  • protein: 2.5 g/8 oz
  • fat: 11 g/8 oz

Some research has shown that protein increases in breast milk during the second year (3). Vitamin D in breast milk is heavily affected by how much the parent is taking as well. Fat content doesn’t change with parental intake, however how often a child feeds and other factors can affect it.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is the most common milk alternative. When choosing one for your child, look for unsweetened and fortified.

  • calcium: 228 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 61 IU/8 oz
  • protein: 8 g/8 oz
  • fat: 4.8 g/8 oz

Pea Milk

Pea milk works really well for kids who have a milk or soy allergy. In the US, it is fortified, but that is not the case everywhere. The main brand is Ripple (affiliate link).

  • calcium: 451 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 120 IU/8 oz
  • protein: 8 g/8 oz
  • fat: 4.5 g/8 oz

Almond Milk

While it is fine to use in a recipe, I don’t usually recommend almond milk as a milk substitute for most children. It is not always fortified with key nutrients and is lower in protein than soy or pea milk.

  • calcium: 391 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 84 IU/8 oz
  • protein: 1.2 g/8 oz
  • fat: 2.8 g/ 8 oz

Rice Milk

Similar to almond milk, I don’t usually recommend rice milk for most children. It is extremely low in protein and fat. While kid do have lower protein needs than most people expect, their fat needs are still very high.

  • calcium: 283 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 101 IU/8 oz
  • protein: 0.7 g/8 oz
  • fat: 2.3 g/8 oz

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is also appropriate for recipes, but not usually as a milk alternative.

  • calcium: 451 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 101 IU/8 oz (fortified)
  • protein: 0.5 g/8 oz
  • fat: 5 g/8 oz

Hemp Milk

Hemp milk is usually not fortified with calcium and vitamin D. It is also low in protein and lower in fat. Overall, it doesn’t make a great choice for a milk alternative for most kids.

  • calcium: 19 mg/8 oz
  • vitamin D: 0 mg/8 oz
  • protein: 2 g/8 oz
  • fat: 4.5 g/8oz

Oat Milk

If the oat milk is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, it can make an appropriate substitution for cow’s milk. It is a bit lower in protein, so it would be important to make sure that your child is eating other protein foods (which shouldn’t be a problem if you are focusing on iron-containing foods).

Milk Alternatives Summary

MilkCalcium (mg)Vitamin D (IU)Protein (g)Fat (g)
All data per 8 oz. Data pulled from USDA database (2).

Which to Choose

This will really depend on your family and your diet. If your child is getting adequate calcium and vitamin D from other sources, you may not need to be worried about finding a fortified option. If your child eats plenty of fat, you may opt to choose a lower fat option. There are many different things to keep in mind, which is why I don’t recommend one choice over another as a blanket statement.

If you’re struggling to choose, working with a pediatric dietitian can really help you figure out which nutrients are most important for YOUR child and your family.

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