Often parents ask questions about introducing milk to their young children. When to introduce, how much to give, and what kinds of milk are all common questions I hear from parents.
Generally, once children are 9 to 12 months old, they can begin to drink cow’s milk. The reason cow’s milk is not recommended until 9 to 12 months is due to its low iron content and a risk of low iron intake when introduced too early. So at that age, when the child is having a regular schedule of meals and snacks and eating a variety of iron-rich foods, cow’s milk can be introduced.
Homogenized (3.25% milk fat) pasteurized cow’s milk (also called whole milk) is recommended because your baby needs the energy that the fat in whole milk provides for growth and development.
When children begin drinking cow’s milk, breastfeeding can be continued as breast milk is still the most important food for the first year of a baby’s life.
In fact, breastfeeding is encouraged for up to two years and beyond, as long as parent and child want to continue.
For children who are 12 months old and older and not breastfed, offering 500 mL (2 cups) cow’s milk in an open cup each day will provide protein, vitamins and minerals important for strong bones and teeth.
For young children under 24 months, they should not have more than 750 mL (3 cups) per day to reduce the risk of low iron.
What about other types of milk?
Many parents ask about other types of milk and when they can introduce them to their children. Goat‘s milk, if it is pasteurized, full-fat, with added folic acid and vitamin D, may be given as an alternative to cow’s milk. However 2% or 1% milk is not generally recommended due to the lower fat content.
On the other hand, milk alternatives such as soy, rice, coconut, hemp, or almond milk should not be the main milk source for children under 24 months. They do not have the same nutrients as cow’s milk or goat’s milk that young children need for their growth and development. For example, the fat content of cow’s milk or goat’s milk is higher than the milk alternatives listed above and fat is an important source of energy for young children.
Soy milk can be offered as a complementary food, but not as the main milk source. Choose soy milks that are unflavoured, full-fat, and fortified to reduce the added sugar and ensure important vitamins and minerals are included.
Contact Toronto Public Health at (416) 338-7600 and speak to a Registered Dietitian if you have additional questions about introducing milk to your child.