If you think your coffee habit is real, take a look at how much milk a toddler drinks in a day. A glass in the morning, a carton with lunch, 8 ounces at dinner, and a warm sippy cup before bed — it’s one helluva habit. It’s not like it’s forced on them, or that parents have all been brainwashed by marketing from Big Milk. It’s just, you know, something they’ll drink. Besides, it’s healthy enough. The American Academy of Pediatrics, after all, recommend toddlers have up to 24 ounces of milk a day.
But do toddlers really need that quantity of the white stuff? The short answer is, probably not. But if they’re a picky eater, it could be keep them from becoming malnourished. That’s no small consideration.
It’s common knowledge that milk contains calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, and a healthy mix of fats. But it also comes with some problems. Dairy is fairly high in natural sugars, and its consumption has been linked with allergies, eczema, acne, and digestive issues. Humans are notably the only species to drink milk past infancy, and in countries like Indonesia, most people don’t even do that. For these reasons, many nutritionists and dietitians see little value in dairy for adults.
But pediatricians hold the line, presenting a united front that toddlers need at least some milk to make up for the food they’re throwing on the floor. “Dairy serves a few purposes. It’s high in fat and whole fat milk is recommended until two years of age for eye and brain development,” says pediatrician Dr. Anthony Porto, a Fellow of the AAP. “It’s a good protein source and a good source of vitamin D and calcium.”
Those nutrients matter because between the ages of one and three children are developmentally predisposed to being picky eaters for a number of reasons. For one, toddlers tend to be wary of anything unfamiliar, which scientists suspect is an evolutionary instinct meant to aid in their survival. It also makes trying new foods challenging. Young children are also starting to pick up boundaries and how to assert and test them. Pushing back about what is on their plate is a great way to accomplish both things. Plus, young kids are generally bad at sitting still and do not have the best motor skills yet, which makes the physical act of eating harder.
On top of that, individual appetites tend to drop off when babies become toddlers. The contrast from a rapid growth phase during infancy can be concerning for parents who want to be sure their kid is getting enough nutrients. Milk helps bridge that nutritional gap while soothing caretaker anxieties, despite being somewhat of a reactive choice.
It is not a flawless choice either. “Many children tend to drink too much milk, which can interfere with their body’s ability to absorb iron, which can result in anemia,” says registered dietitian Diana Gariglio-Clelland. In some cases, toddlers can become somewhat dependent on milk and avoid solid foods as a result. “Drinking milk can also reduce the child’s appetite because it’s rich in protein and fat,” she says. And in extreme instances, children can appear to be addicted to milk.
Gariglio-Clelland recommends parents limit children to water in between meals and only allow milk during certain times. Porto agrees that it is important for parents to find a balance between milk, water, and solid foods, even if a lot of kids would gladly guzzle milk all day.
“Some children drink more milk than they should which may limit other food they consume, decrease their development in how to chew and swallow more textured foods, which can cause nutritional deficiencies,” he says.
If kids are getting most of their nutrients from milk, they are likely to drink far more than the recommended 24 ounces a day. Of course, this is better than them going hungry, but it also primes children to be picky eaters in the long-term. On the flip side, if toddlers are eating plenty of solid nutritious foods, then there is really no need to drink that much milk and kids can switch to water.
“If children are eating a variety of foods that are high in calcium and vitamin D and sufficient protein and fat, milk may not be necessary,” Porto says.
Ultimately, the AAP’s recommendation for toddlers to drink 24 ounces of milk a day is more of a suggestion than a mandate. Not every child needs milk and many children may not need as much as they are getting. Likewise, some kids might have trouble digesting it early on and parents can discuss alternative options with their pediatricians.
So, let them drink milk if they love it. But if they’re simply thirsty, give them a glass of water. On top of it all, the clear stuff is free.