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Milk for toddlers

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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.

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


Most toddlers enjoy milk but a few do not, so it is helpful to know what other foods can be given to the toddler if this happens.

How much fat?

  • Give full cream milk to children between 1 and 2 years of age. Whole milk has 4% fat.
  • After 2 years of age reduced fat or low fat milk should be encouraged. Low fat milk has 1 to 2% fat.

How much milk?

  • No less than 375 mls of milk (1 ½ cups) and no more than 500 mls of milk (about 2 cups) a day. It is only one part of what toddlers eat and drink and other foods are needed too.
  • It is important that children do not drink so much milk that they won't eat other foods as this is a common cause of health problems (such as iron deficiency anaemia) in toddlers.

Why milk is important for young children

  • Milk has a lot of 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.
  • Most (although not all) toddlers like milk and dairy foods.

Calcium needs for toddlers

  • Children 1 to 3 years need about 500 mg of calcium per day, while children 4 to 8 years need about 700 mg.
  • Calcium cannot be made by the body so the dairy foods (milk, cheese etc) that children eat and drink every day are important.

Commercial toddler milk

  • Special milks or formulas for toddlers are not needed for healthy children.
  • 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 have the same food values for children as ordinary milk, they have just been treated differently so they last longer.
  • They are just as good for children.
  • They 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).

Untreated cows' milk

  • Raw milk (milk that has not been pasteurised) can contain harmul 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. For more information: 'SA Health renews raw milk warning'.
  • Cows' milk that comes straight from the farm and is not treated should be boiled.
  • Milk that is sold in shops and has been treated 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.

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 children do not want to drink milk when they have a cold try other dairy foods like yoghurt or cheese or flavoured milk iceblocks and the other suggestions in this topic.

A2 milk

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.

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.

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.

Soy milk

Full fat soy beverages which have calcium added are suitable for use after 1 year of age as part of a mixed diet.

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.

Rice milk

  • Rice milk is a liquid made from rice, and therefore is a perfectly good food, the same as rice itself, as part of a mixed diet. However it is not a good substitute for breastmilk or cows' milk for young children.
  • In the form available in supermarkets, calcium has been added, which is good, but the protein level is much lower than in cows' milk. It is also low in fat which is not advisable for children under two.
  • Toddlers could have an occasional drink of rice milk as long as it doesn't take the place of other milks or milk foods in their diet.
  • For older children and adults who want to drink it, it could be a valuable, low fat and lactose-free source of calcium.

Goats' milk

  • Goats' milk is very similar to cows' milk, so it can be given after 12 months.
  • It is very important that goats' milk is pasteurised or boiled though, as it can contain germs that could make a young child ill.
  • Goats' milk has even less of some vitamins than plain cows' milk, particularly folic acid  (folate). To help with this, make sure your child has a good range of foods, especially vegetables, fruit and cereals, some of which have folate added.
  • For very fussy eaters, a folic acid supplement may be worthwhile if they are drinking only goats' milk.

Coconut milk 

  • Coconut milk is not really a milk as such and doesn't provide the same nourishment as normal milks.
  • It contains a lot of fat and provides little else of value to the diet.
  • Although it is fine to give children occasional foods (such as Asian dishes) containing coconut milk, it is not ideal as an infant food and certainly cannot be used to replace other milks.

Foods that contain calcium

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 gm fat , 8 gm of protein and 305 mg calcium. Low-fat milks contain at least as much calcium as whole cows' milk.
  • Toddlers can get their calcium from drinking milk and/or eating foods that contain calcium.

Other foods that contain calcium

Food Amount of Calcium
Cheddar cheese - 20 gm 130 mg calcium
Cottage cheese - 20 gm only 14 mg calcium
Cream cheese spread - 24 gm 67 mg calcium
Fruit yoghurt - 1 X 200 gm tub 250 mg calcium
Natural yoghurt - 1 X 200 gm tub 390 mg calcium
Baked beans - ½ cup 40 mg calcium
Canned sardines (with bones) - 60g (½) tin 200mg calcium
Canned salmon (with bones) - 50g (¼ cup) 100 mg calcium
Broccoli and sesame seeds
Smaller but useful amounts of calcium.

Calcium enriched milks

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.

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

  • Soy milk can be used for drinking and cooking (ie in sauces and custards).
  • Soy yoghurts are now available.
  • However soy products do not have much calcium unless it has been added. Check what it says on the packet. To take the place of cows' milk there should be at least 100 mg of calcium per 100 mls soy milk.
  • Tofu can be a good source of calcium as calcium is used in making it.

Children who cannot eat dairy or soy

  • There is some calcium in most foods, especially tinned fish (especially salmon and sardines), green vegetables, peas and beans and cereals.
  • However it can be difficult to get enough calcium without using some milk foods.
  • Calcium tablets are easy to get, and can be crushed and added to other foods - check your child's needs with your doctor or a dietician.

Resources and references

Women's and Children's Hospital (South Australia), Nutrition Department 'Tucker for toddlers'. 

Food Standards Australia and New Zealand

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) 'Australian Dietary Guidelines 2013', . 

NHMRC 'Nutrient reference values' 2006

Smith WB, Thompson D, Kummerow M, Quinn P, Gold MS Letter to the Editor (re A2 milk and allergy) Medical Journal of Australia, November 15 2004;181(10):574

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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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