If you grew up in the 90s, you probably remember the iconic ‘Got Milk?’ ads. Our favorite celebrities ranging from Harrison Ford to Kermit the Frog proudly showing off their version of a milk mustache. And without a doubt it was a cow’s milk mustache, right?

Times have changed.

Today I’d wonder, “Is it a soy milk mustache? Or almond? Maybe pea? If it’s cow’s milk, is it organic?”

As a pediatrician, I spend a lot of my time in the office talking about milk. While we encourage breastfeeding as long as possible, many children are starting the transition from breastmilk or formula at the age of 1. It’s understandable that questions regarding various milk options come up frequently.

Thankfully, research supporting milk-related medical guidelines can help us mamas sort out the most nutritious option for our littles.

First things first. Does my child really need milk?

Children don’t necessarily need milk. But they DO need key nutrients contained in milk. Calcium, fat, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and protein to name a few. Building blocks necessary for healthy growth. While milk is not the only source, it’s often one of the most accessible.

Cow’s Milk, The OG

Although cow’s milk is the most familiar of the milks, its various forms come aplenty. Let’s attempt to tackle the most common cow’s milk related questions.

Organic vs Regular

Is it safe to drink “regular” milk? This is milk from cows potentially given growth hormones to boost production. To help answer this question, I looked to the latest 2019 guidelines. Guidelines developed by members of the American Academy of Pediatrics in conjunction with other reliable healthcare organizations.

Evidence suggests no negative impact on human health from consuming milk from cows given growth hormones. So, if it’s a matter of personal preference, cool. But if cost is a concern, it’s okay not to spring for the often more expensive organic option.

Whole Milk vs Low Fat

Experts go back-and-forth on this. The following includes recommendations based on the same 2019 guidelines. Generally speaking, children 1-2 years old should drink whole milk. Children 2-5 can switch to low fat milk. That said, if your child’s weight is a concern for you, have a low threshold to get your doctor’s input.

What about Volume?

How much milk does a toddler need? A goal of 2-3 cups/day via sippy cup is appropriate. Avoid giving too much. Overzealous milk drinkers are at risk of developing anemia.

A Note on Raw Milk

Raw milk = unpasteurized milk = risky milk. Risky for carrying bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. Children and pregnant women are at highest risk. Public experts unanimously agree, avoid raw milk.

Other Milks

Parents prefer cow’s milk alternatives for a variety of reasons. The options are endless. Nutritionally speaking, which are decent choices for a growing child?

The Cliff’s Notes Version:

  • Best Alternatives: Soy and pea milk. Both have similar nutritional profiles to that of 2% cow’s milk in terms of protein, calcium and vitamin D. The lower fat content can be made up by supplementing your child’s diet with healthy fats.
  • Not-So-Good: Nut milks, grain milks and coconut milk. Of the alternatives, these options offer significantly less protein and healthy fat than the average toddler diet requires. If used, ensure they’re fortified with calcium and vitamin D.

A Final Important Note

If a milk allergy or intolerance is a concern, be safe. Talk to your doctor before contemplating any trial.

By no means is this summary all-inclusive. Hopefully though, staring down the milk aisle might feel a bit less overwhelming next time you’re cruising for groceries.

cow's milk

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Paras is an Iranian American, born in Tehran and raised in Texas. She is now pleased to call Colorado home. She is the mother of two rambunctious boys, a wife to an equally rambunctious husband (genetics!) and a pediatrician. Paras attended medical school at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and went on to complete her pediatric residency training at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Her special interests include childhood advocacy, healthcare education, and she absolutely loves working with new parents. After having children of her own, she quickly realized that raising kiddos was not as straightforward as many pediatric medical texts or parenting books might imply! She has found it extremely fulfilling to navigate the challenging, yet rewarding world of being a working mom alongside her patients and peers. In her spare time, Paras enjoys hiking, embroidery and is an aspiring yogi on the journey to attaining and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.