How Much Milk Should a Toddler Drink?

  Photo by  Providence Doucet  on  Unsplash
Photo by Providence Doucet  on Unsplash

Many toddlers would love to live solely on milk. Because of this, parents need to be cautious when offering milk to their young children. You need to make sure your toddler is getting her nutrients from a wide variety of foods. While whole milk is a healthy option, parents need to offer fruits, vegetables, and whole grains before toddlers drink milk. Now that we’re past the baby stage, milk is part of a meal, it’s not the meal. Surprisingly, toddlers don’t actually need milk, but it is a healthy choice when it doesn’t interfere with their other nutritional needs.

Often, little tummies become quite full after a cup of milk and this prevents toddlers from eating a diverse diet. Also, since pediatricians recommend children under 2 only consume full-fat dairy products, too much milk can lead to constipation.

A fair guideline to follow is the 16-ounce rule. Your 1 or 2-year-old can have either two 8-ounce cups or four 4-ounce cups of milk each day. If your toddler is closer to 1 than 2, 24 ounces per day is usually fine. Any more than that and the milk will be interfering with her other nutritional needs.

Signs that Your Child is Drinking Too Much Milk

  • Chronic Constipation – Pediatricians note that constipated children are often drinking twice as much milk as recommended. Milk itself has no fiber and prevents children from consuming whole foods that do contain fiber. This is very common in children between two and four years of age.
  • Iron Deficiency Anemia- Milk has no iron and actually interferes with iron absorption in the body. Signs of anemia in young children are similar to the signs in adults, including paleness, irritability, trouble maintaining body temperature, feeling weak, blue sclera, brittle fingernails, and cracking/splits in the corners of little lips. If you suspect your child is anemic, take her to your pediatrician immediately. In rare cases, a blood transfusion may be required. Treating iron deficiency is extremely important, as it affects mental and academic development as well as bodily functions.
  • Obesity- If your toddler maintains healthy appetite for both table foods and milk, she may be at risk for becoming overweight. Milk is a high-calorie food and your little one may be gaining too much weight from the excessive calories. A child drinking 32-48 ounces of milk per day may be consuming 600-900 calories from milk alone. That is half of the total calories needed for a toddler.
  • Poor Weight Gain– Alternatively, if a child is drinking 32-48 ounces of milk and eating little else, she is only consuming half of the calories needed in a day. She’ll also be missing out on other important nutrients, like iron. Proper nutrition is key for a child to develop a healthy body and mind.

Decreasing Your Toddler’s Milk Intake

If you have a milk-loving child, here are some tips for decreasing your child’s daily dairy intake.

  • Only offer water with meals. Milk can be served after your toddler has filled up on healthy foods. Now that your little one has graduated from baby to toddler, milk is no longer the meal.
  • If you’re still using a bottle, stop. Try to encourage the use of a regular cup early and often. Even a sippy cup is better than a bottle for children over 1. You may want to start this gradually. For example, if your child normally has 3 bottles per day, just change 1 bottle to a cup for the first few days.
  • Do not fill the sippy or straw cup all the way. Although doctors agree children don’t need more than 16 oz of milk per day, many of the toddler cups come is 8-12 ounce sizes. Fill these cups up half full in order to quickly decrease milk intake.
  • Transition to low-fat milk once your child is two years old.
  • Only offer milk during mealtimes. Do not offer milk as a snack or before nap or bedtimes. If your child experiences difficulty with this tranisition, slowly dillute the milk with water. On day one, perhaps you offer 1:4 water to milk ratio. By the end of the week, your child is only having water between meals and before bed.
  • If your child refuses to eat at all and will only drink fluids (milk, juice, water or otherwise), then your best option will be to have her evaluated by a professional. Many therapists are able to find underlying complications with children who are initially described as “picky”. Whether your little one is having oral motor issues or sensory problems, a health professional can be a great support.

Healthy Milk Alternatives

Perhaps your doctor has alerted you that your child is lactose intolerant. Maybe you’re battling a common cold that would go away a lot faster by avoiding dairy. If you have to quit milk cold turkey for a few days, here are the best toddler-friendly options.

  • Almond milk and rice milk are both very low in fat and protein, so they are better alternatives for older toddlers. When choosing almond or rice milk, go for the unsweetened versions.
  • Hemp milk, while also lower in fat and protein than non-dairy milk, has a higher concentration of nutrients that almond or rice milk.
  • Soy milk has the greatest concentration of nutrients, proteins, and fats of any non-dairy milk. However, if you’re facing a dairy allergy there is a 40% chance your child is also allergic to soy.
  • Goat milk contains more calcium, potassium and Vitamin A than cow’s milk. However, it lacks folic acid and B12. You can serve your child goat’s milk if you find a fortified version, or give him a vitamin supplement.
  • Kefir is a thick yogurt-like drink that has been considered a health food since ancient times. It’s rich in protein, but cost prohibitive for most families.
  • Water is a great option if you’re blessed with a child who loves table foods. Remember, children don’t actually need milk. Water is the healthiest drink for a thirsty child.

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