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Milk for toddlers

child; milk; toddler; nutrition; calcium; fat; low; reduced; diet; iron; deficiency; anaemia; dairy; food; soy; bone; teeth; protein; vitamin; cheese; yoghurt; artificial; feed; skim; long; life; untreated; mucus; mucous; rice; goats; listeria; raw; coli; campylobacter; salmonella; coconut; folic; acid; folate; A1; A2; cows'; cow; cows; pasteurised; unpasteurised;

Why milk is important for young children

Milk is a child's most important food in the first year of life and is still very important in the next few years. Children under 12 months of age should have breast milk or formula for their main drinks.

  • Milk is high in calcium, which is important for growing bones and teeth. Calcium is more easily taken into the body from milk than from vegetable foods.
  • Milk also provides good protein.
  • Whole milk gives fat for energy and growth.
  • Milk provides some vitamins, especially Vitamin A (in the milk fat) and B group vitamins.

Plain milk is a good drink for children over 1 year of age.


How much milk does my toddler need?

Toddlers need at least 1 ½ serves of dairy foods per day for good nutrition.  A serve of dairy is equal to:

  • 1 cup (250mls) of milk or calcium fortified soy milk
  • 200g of yoghurt or custard
  • 2 slices (40g) of cheese

Toddlers should not drink more than 500mls of milk a day - too much milk can fill them up and make them less hungry for food. This can make meal times difficult. It can also mean that toddlers miss out on important nutrients such as iron. 

Your toddler should not need milk overnight. 

What type of milk should I give my toddler?

Toddlers less than two years of age should have full cream milk. Full cream milk has 4% fat. After two years of age children can drink reduced fat milks with the rest of the family. Reduced fat milk has 1 to 2% fat.

Milk that is sold in shops has been pasteurised and usually homogenised. This means it has been heated to kill any germs and the fat has been thoroughly mixed in so it doesn’t rise to the top. It is safest for young children to drink milk that has been treated in both these ways.

When should I start using a cup instead of a bottle?

Children who drink from a bottle for too long have a higher chance of tooth decay and ear infections. It may also reduce their appetite for foods. Drinking too much milk from a bottle can lead to poor nutrition (such as low iron).

Toddlers need to learn to drink from a cup. Offer small amounts of breastmilk, formula or tap water in a cup from six months of age.

When your child starts drinking cow’s milk at 12 months of age, use a cup. A bottle is not needed.

Caring for teeth

Tooth decay is common in toddlers who suck on or fall asleep with bottles of milk, cordial or juice. To prevent tooth decay:

  • Wean your toddler from the bottle if they are still using one. Encourage your toddler to drink from a cup.
  • Give your child tap water to drink. Tap water contains fluoride, which helps to protect teeth from decay.
  • As soon as teeth appear, clean them with a soft cloth or small soft brush.  From 18 months you can start to use a small amount of low fluoride or children’s toothpaste to brush your child’s teeth. 

Calcium needs for toddlers

The body cannot make calcium, so the dairy foods (milk, cheese, yoghurt) that children eat and drink every day are important.

Calcium is needed for strong, healthy bones and teeth. Toddler’s bones are growing all the time. They need a lot of calcium.

  • The best sources of calcium are cow’s milk, yoghurt, custard, cheese or a calcium fortified milk.
  • Children 1 to 3 years need about 500 mg of calcium per day, while children 4 to 8 years need about 700 mg.
  • A 250ml glass of whole cows' milk contains about 165 calories, 9.5 grams of fat, 8 grams of protein and 305 mg calcium. Low-fat milks contain at least as much calcium as whole cows' milk.

Your toddler will be getting enough calcium if he or she has 1 ½ serves from the ‘milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives’ group per day in the topic ‘Feeding toddlers – what and how much?’

From time to time milks are put on the market where the milk has been enriched (eg with extra calcium). If children are getting the calcium requirements listed above, there is no need for them to have milk that has extra calcium in it. It is important that children under 2 have full cream milk and not low fat milk.

Commercial toddler milk

Toddler milk (also known as toddler formula) is usually not needed.  A toddler who is eating from all the food groups does not need to drink toddler milk.

If you are concerned about your toddler's diet or growth, talk to your doctor or child and family health nurse, or ask to see a dietitian.

Long life milk

Long life milk and UHT milk are just as nutritious for children as the milk found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket; they have just been treated differently so they last longer.

Long life milk should be used in the same way as ordinary milk (ie full cream milk is best for children under 2 years of age).

Once the carton of "long life" milk is opened it is no longer "long life": it "goes off" at the same rate as ordinary milk and needs to be kept in the refrigerator.

Soy milk

Soy milk can be used instead of cow’s milk if preferred. Choose soy milk that has added calcium (at least 100mg calcium per 100ml).

Full fat soy beverages which have calcium added are suitable for use after 1 year of age.

Like cow's milk, soy milk should be included as part of a healthy varied diet. It is only one part of what toddlers eat and drink, and other foods are needed.

Other soy drinks that do not have calcium added are not best for toddlers.

Untreated cows' milk

Raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurised) can contain harmful bacteria (germs) such as such as E coli, salmonella, campylobacter and listeria which can cause serious or even life threatening illness particularly in young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.

Pasteurisation kills or neutralises dangerous germs without changing the taste of milk or affecting its nutritional value.

Under Australian food laws it is illegal to sell unpasteurised milk products for human consumption.   

Cows' milk that comes straight from the farm and is not treated should be boiled.

Milk and mucus

Some people think that cows' milk produces mucus and that they should not give it to their children when they have a cold.

Research shows that drinking milk does not increase mucus. Milk has a creamy feel and tends to leave a soft, sticky coating in the mouth and throat. This is not mucus and usually only lasts a short while and does no harm.

It is important that children continue to have healthy diets when they have a cold.

If your child does not want to drink milk when they have a cold try other dairy foods like yoghurt or cheese or flavoured milk ice blocks and the other suggestions in this topic.

A2 milk

Cows' milk has many different proteins. One of the most common beta-casein proteins in A1 milk is different to one in A2 milk. Milk from different breeds of cows has different amounts of these proteins. Some breeds of cows, such as Friesians, produce mostly A1 milk, while other breeds, such as Guernseys (and also sheep and goats) produce mostly A2 milk. Milk in Australia is mostly a mix of A1 and A2 milks.

A2 milk is being promoted fairly widely as having health benefits, but as yet there is little evidence that A2 milk might be any better for children than A1 milk. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) recommend that milk (A1 and A2 milk) should continue to be regarded as a safe and nutritious part of the diet for most people.

Research in Australia has shown that children who were allergic to A1 milk were also allergic to A2 milk. Children with cows' milk allergy should not be given A2 milk.

Rice milk

Rice milk is very low in protein and fat and should not take the place of cow’s milk, soy milk or breast milk in a toddlers diet.

Toddlers can have an occasional drink of rice milk and it can be used in cooking however it should not take the place of other milks or milk foods in a child’s diet.

If your child is only drinking rice milk it is important to seek the advice of an Accredited Practicing Dietitian to ensure your child’s diet is adequate. Private dietitian’s can be found at the Dietitian’s Association of Australia website (www.daa.asn.au) and many dietitians are available for consultation at your local community health centre or public hospital.

Goats' milk

Goats' milk is very similar to cows' milk and can be given to toddlers as a main drink. after 12 months.

It is very important that goats' milk is pasteurised, as fresh goat’s milk can contain germs that could make a young child ill. Refer to ‘untreated cow’s milk’ section.

Goats' milk has less of some vitamins than are in regular cows' milk – in particular folic acid (folate). To help with this, make sure your child eats other foods high in folate such as green leafy vegetables, fruit and fortified cereals. For very fussy eaters, a folic acid supplement may be worthwhile if they are only drinking goats' milk.

Coconut milk

 Coconut milk should not be used as an alternative to cow’s milk however it can be used in cooking or as an occasional drink for toddlers.

Coconut milk is not a good alternative to cow’s milk because:

  • It is very high in calories and a small amount will make a child feel full, so that the child is less likely to eat enough of other foods that he/she needs.
  • It has less protein than cow’s milk
  • It has no riboflavin and very little calcium. It is difficult to get enough of these if a child is not having cow’s milk or soy based dairy products. 

What parents can do

Remember milk and other dairy foods are the most important sources of calcium and contain other food needs as well.

  • Do not give too much fruit juice, etc as it may take the place of milk.
  • For children who don't like to drink milk, encourage them to eat breakfast cereals with milk, or try giving cereal and milk during the day as a snack.
  • Choose desserts that are made from milk, such as puddings, custards, yoghurt etc.
  • Try casseroles, pasta and rice with sauces made with milk and add melted cheese.
  • Sprinkle grated cheese on vegetables, pizza and sandwiches.
  • Give your toddler tinned fish (eg salmon, sardines), mashed with bones. 

Children who cannot eat dairy foods

  • Dairy products are an important source of protein, calcium and energy in children’s diets.
  • If your child does not eat any dairy foods calcium fortified soy milk can be used for drinking and cooking (ie in sauces and custards).
  • Ensure you choose soy milk that has added calcium (at least 100mg per 100ml).
  • Soy yoghurts are now available.  Check that they are fortified with calcium.
  • Tofu can be a good source of calcium as calcium is used in making it. 

Children who cannot eat dairy or soy

  • Dairy and soy products are an important source of protein, calcium and energy in children’s diets.  
  • If your child is not eating any dairy or soy products it is difficult to get enough of these nutrients in the diet.
  • Other foods that contain some calcium include tinned fish (especially salmon and sardines), green vegetables, peas and beans and cereals however they are not absorbed by the body as well as calcium from dairy foods.
  • If your child does not have any dairy or soy in their diet they may need a calcium supplement.  Talk to your local pharmacist about calcium supplements. 


Tap water is healthy, freely available and helps protect against tooth decay. Most children enjoy water if they get into the habit of drinking it from a young age. Start by setting a good example yourself and always have water available for the whole family.

There is more information in the topic ‘Water - drinking water’.

Fruit juice, cordial and other drinks

Fruit juice, cordial and sweetened drinks (e.g. soft drink) are not needed. Only offer them on special occasions and resist having them in the house.

Drinking too much juice can give toddlers runny, loose poos (toddler diarrhoea). It can also cause tooth decay and excess weight gain. If you choose to give your toddler juice, dilute one part juice to three parts water. Don’t give your toddler more than one small glass (125ml) of diluted juice each day with a meal. If you are giving your toddler juice, always offer it in a cup, not a bottle.

Tea and coffee should not be given to children. They are low in nutrition and high in caffeine. Caffeine can make it difficult for the body to absorb iron and may cause sleeping problems.

The only drinks toddlers need for good health are water (tap water is best) and milk (a maximum of 500ml per day).

Healthy weigh

 Overweight and obesity are becoming more common in children, including toddlers. This can cause problems with health and self esteem. Many parents don’t realise when their child is overweight.

It’s important to have your child’s growth checked. The earlier problems are found, the more easily they can be addressed.

To help reduce the risk of your toddler being overweight  follow the healthy eating tips in the topics

Make activity an everyday part of your life.

If you are worried about your toddler’s weight talk to your doctor, dietitian or child and family health nurse.

Resources and references 

Much of the content of this topic comes from a booklet produced by specialist Dietitians at the Women’s and Children’s Health Network (WCHN), SA Health.
‘Tucker for toddlers’ 

Other sources of further information

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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