Cow, goat, almond, soy – there’s a lot more to milk these days. But which one is best for your child?
There is a wide variation in nutrient content between animal and plant-based drinks – especially protein, fat and calories. Awareness of these differences can ensure your child’s dietary intake adequately meets their nutritional requirements. This article provides nutritional information on dairy and plant-based drinks and contains tables for easy comparison so that you can better understand the best milk for children.
Milk and dairy foods are good sources of important nutrients, so please consult with your GP or dietitian if you are considering removing them from your child’s diet.
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In addition to traditional cow, goat, and sheep’s milk, there are a number of lactose-free dairy products available that contain the same vitamins and minerals with added lactase. This enzyme helps digest any lactose so that the products don’t trigger symptoms in lactose intolerant individuals. Dairy based kefir is growing in popularity, and has the added benefit of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus content to aid gut health.
Cow, goat and sheep’s milk shouldn’t be given as a drink to children below one year. Babies under one year also shouldn’t be given condensed, evaporated or dried milk, or any other drinks referred to as “milk”, such as rice, oat or almond drinks.
Between one and two years, children should be given whole milk and dairy products as they may not get the calories or essential vitamins they need from lower fat alternatives. After the age of two, children can gradually move to semi-skimmed milk as a drink, as long as they are eating a varied and balanced diet and growing well. Skimmed or one per cent fat milk is not advised as a drink for children under five years as it is generally nutritionally insufficient for their needs.
If your child is unable to eat dairy products, their calcium intake may be insufficient. You can give your child unsweetened calcium-fortified milk alternatives, such as soya, oat or almond drinks, from the age of one as part of a healthy balanced diet. Plant-based drinks are naturally lactose free and suitable for a vegan diet.
Soya milk can be a main milk alternative from two years, and oat, almond, and other nut drinks are suitable as a main milk source from three years of age. Babies and young children under five years should not be given rice drinks due to the levels of arsenic in the products.
What to look out for – read the labels
While the calcium content is very similar in dairy and fortified plant-based drinks, it is important to notice calorie, protein and fat content differences. For example 100ml of whole milk provides 68 kcal, while the same volume of almond milk provides only 18 kcal. Protein can range from 3.6g in semi-skimmed milk, to 0.1g in rice milk. Check the labels when buying plant-based drinks to ensure they are unsweetened where possible and fortified with calcium and B12 – especially if your child is vegan. (The links below feature more information on age specific nutritional requirements for children.)
Calcium. How much is enough?
Children between the age of one and three need to have around 350mg of calcium a day. About 300ml of milk or milk alternatives would provide this. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) calcium fact sheet link outlines recommended intake per age group.
Table 1. Dairy based and Lactose Free Milks
Table 2. Plant based dairy free drinks
For more detailed and evidence-based information around dairy and plant-based drinks for children, please consult the following links:
Lorraine McLelland is a BDA and HCPC UK registered practising dietitian. She is available for consultation through Stanley Wellness Centre.
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