Selecting Milk for Your Toddler
When it comes to selecting the right milk for your toddler, there have never been more options. The grocery store's milk aisle is full of choices - cow's milk at all fat levels (whole, 2%...) and with options for organic, lactose-free, and grass-fed; goat's milk; plant-based milks made from coconuts, peas, soy, rice, or almonds; and probably more I'm leaving out. Then there is the milk you won't find in the grocery store but was the norm for thousands of years - human breastmilk - which may or may not be available to you depending on whether you are still nursing. It can be overwhelming and confusing trying to figure out which milk is best for your toddler. Your pediatrician tells you one thing, the American Academy of Pediatrics says something else, and other mommies in your online group say something completely different. Here are a few facts to help you sort through the options and select the best fit for your little one:
The Benchmark - Breastmilk
Mammals - be they human, bovine, chimp or otherwise - continue to nurse their young until their offspring's immune system and brain are well developed. Historic, anthropological, and scientific evidence all point to breastfeeding as the human norm for children until 2-7 years of age.1 For this reason, the World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend breastfeeding for at least two years, and beyond as long as mother and baby desire. In the United States, only 36% of babies are still breastfeeding at 12 months,2 so that leaves 64% of infants who will need an alternative milk. But before we consider the non-human milks available, it helps to start with some knowledge of the components of human milk so we can know what to look for in a suitable alternative.
Human milk changes as a baby grows to best complement his/her needs. The breastmilk produced for a toddler has become concentrated, containing a higher amount of fat and calories compared to breastmilk produced for an infant.3 This means a toddler does not have to consume the same quantity of breastmilk as he did when he was younger to still get the same nutrients.4 Here are a few of the superstar components of breastmilk that are especially important for toddler health but sometimes overlooked:
Fat & Cholesterol - Breastmilk is full of "healthy fats" and cholesterol that are crucial for brain building.3 You may be used to thinking of these nutrients as something to limit, but for young children fat and cholesterol are literally the building blocks of the brain. Without adequate fat (50% of caloric intake) and cholesterol, the brain "starves" and is unable to grow to its full potential.5 With 80% of the brain's growth occurring in the first three years, this is something to be taken seriously!
Protein - Breastmilk contains high amounts of easy-to-digest protein. According to Livestrong.com, "Protein is a major component of your muscles, organs and skin. The protein in your diet also helps your body repair cells and make new cells. This is especially important for children, because children are constantly going through periods of growth and development. Protein also allows for proper wound healing and helps the body maintain fluid and acid-base balance."
Calcium - Breastmilk contains easily absorbed calcium. According to KidsHealth.org, "Younger kids and babies who don't get enough calcium and vitamin D (which aids in calcium absorption) are at increased risk for rickets. Rickets is a bone-softening disease that causes severe bowing of the legs, poor growth, and sometimes muscle pain and weakness. Calcium also plays an important part in making sure that muscles and nerves work properly, and in the release of hormones and enzymes."
Non-nutrient Components - Breastmilk contains many other ingredients that cannot be replicated in commercially produced milk, including enzymes, hormones, and immune factors all of which help keep your toddler healthy and growing.
Deciding Between the Alternatives: Animal or Vegan Milk
Toddlers who are breastfeeding at least 3 times a day do not need additional milk. But for those toddlers who have weaned, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 3-4, 3oz servings of dairy per day (dairy includes cow's milk, yogurt, cheese, etc). For parents trying to decide on the best milk for their toddler, here is the nutrient break down:
Cow's milk - Like breastmilk, whole cow's milk contains high levels of fat and cholesterol, essential for brain building. Grass-fed cows will produce more "good fats" compared to conventional feeds.7 Cow's milk also contains high amounts of protein and calcium for muscle and bone health. Unfortunately, 2.5% of toddlers have dairy allergies. For others, the protein and lactose in milk can be hard to digest since the natural enzymes present in fresh bovine milk have been eliminated during pasteurization.
Goat's milk - Similar to cow's milk, goat's milk contains high amounts of fat, cholesterol, and protein. Some people find that the protein and lactose in goat's milk is easier to digest. However, goat's milk has a flavor that some toddlers dislike.
Vegan "milk" - This category include coconut, almond, soy and most other plant-based "milks." Although these milks are gentle on the tummy and suitable for those with dairy allergies, they contain very little fat, protein and calcium compared to mammal milks. They also contain no cholesterol, which is essential for a toddler's rapid brain growth. Parents whose toddlers do not consume mammal milk (breastmilk, goat, cow etc) will have to work very hard to ensure other sources of these nutrients are abundant in their child's diet. If your child needs a vegan milk, we recommend trying the pea-protein milks (such as Ripple) which have higher ratios of fat, protein, and calcium compared to other vegan milks.
Nutrition Facts, per cup
Breastmilk is not included simply because the nutrients change over the course of a baby's development to match their needs, but it would resemble other mammal milks in that it is a nutritious source of fat, cholesterol, protein and calcium in addition to a host of beneficial non-nutrient components.
The historical and scientific evidence tells us that it is natural for children to continue to have milk as a primary source of nutrition in their diet for around 3 years. If breastfeeding ends between 12-36 months, I generally recommend parents incorporate at least 3 daily servings of either cow or goat's milk into their child's diet. Of course, in the case of food allergies/sensitivities the vegan milks can be helpful, but other sources of fat, cholesterol, protein and calcium must be carefully added to a toddler's diet in these situations. If you would like personalized guidance for weaning your toddler, please feel free to book a consult.
7 Organic Production Enhances Milk Nutritional Quality, PLOS ONE, 2013