We don’t need cows to survive but their milk sure does provide us with a convenient source of calcium. The amount of milk our children need varies with age. I outline needs in the video but know this, as your child ages from a preschooler to a school-age child to a teenager, their calcium needs increase. Of course, if your child doesn’t like milk or is allergic to milk products, you have plenty of ways to get them the calcium they need from other foods rich in calcium to fortified juices to calcium supplements and calcium-fortified bars.
Getting The Calcium Our Children Need:
- Lowfat milk is an easy and affordable source of calcium, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Other calcium rich foods include soybeans (edamame), tofu, broccoli, spinach, and almonds. Click on that link for a comparison of how much calcium each food contains compared to a cup of lowfat milk.
- Calcium needs increase by age. Here’s a chart that breaks it down by the milligrams of calcium kids need each day. If you’re not into counting milligrams of calcium, think of calcium needs by the glasses of milk need daily: about 2 cups for 2 to 3 year olds, 2 1/2 cups for 4 to 8 year olds, and 3 cups for rapid-growing 9 to 18 year olds.
- You don’t need whole milk for proper nutrition after age 2. “Whole” only refers to the amount of dairy fats, not the amount of vitamins or protein. US Studies find that almost 1/3 of families still serve their older children whole milk. I recommend switching to lowfat milk once your child turns 2.
- Fewer than 1 in 10 girls gets the calcium they need between the age of 9 and 13 years. Fewer than 1 in 4 boys in the same age gets what they need. I’m perplexed by the sex difference, but suspect it has to do with calorie restriction (read: dieting), cultural norms, and the vast array of alternative beverages marketed to teens. When I searched for an explanation, I found data on fur seals. If you know the answer, please leave a comment!
- If you are concerned your child is lactose-intolerant (very rare prior to age 5 years) consider getting milk products that are lactose-free or getting pills from the doctor that help children digest the lactose (milk sugar).
- If your child isn’t a milk-hound, consider finding ways to keep calcium-rich snacks within reach. For easy snacks consider a handful of almonds or a piece of low-fat string cheese. Leave them out and in arm’s reach after school.
- And remember, the only two things your toddler to teen needs to drink on planet earth are milk & water. Everything else is an extra.
Is childhood obesity the main reason for switching from whole milk at age 2?
My daughter is 23 months and is skinny (5th percentile for weight, 95th for height) and very active. Should I still switch to low-fat when she’s two?
Also she was a preemie – should I wait until adjusted age 2? (I never know how long before I should stop worrying about that difference…)
To Ruth’s concern on whether to continue the child with whole milk,
My experience has been that when my son(6yrs) is not drinking milk , he look not so fresh. As soon as he starts on milk for few weeks, i can see his face looks more full and his hair is better, he no longer complaints of leg pains and i see growth sprouts better.
With Whole milk i have found it even better. Also have read about loosing the good things (naturally occurring Omega-3) in milk when u go for low fat versions. My thought is as kids we, our parents have had unprocessed whole milk and that seem to have been good, so like to go with that.
My family had gone vegan for about 2yrs and it didn’t go well for anyone of us (may be individual differences) more muscle cramps etc. During this time my son was not on milk (around 4yrs), his growth was not good, he started looking skinny and hair was not healthy.
And another note, my child do not seem to tolerate regular milk and found to be doing ok with lactose free whole milk . Again everyone is different, do educate yourself, on kids don’t use much of the new foods, traditional generations tested food is best and use your motherly instinct, this has been my guiding principle
I’m very surprised that you so strongly link kids’ “calcium requirement” with requirement for milk. Gosh, even the chart you show gives daily calcium requirements in terms of requirement for glasses of milk!
There is strong evidence that eating animal products, including milk, leaches calcium out of our bones – rather than supporting healthy bones.
Also, it has been shown that proteins in milk block the absorption of antioxidants from other foods, like blueberries.
Kids don’t actually need any milk. They would do better to replace their milk consumption with other calcium-rich whole foods.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
Ruth, its certainly okay to keep your 2 year-old on whole milk if weight gain is a concern. I’d talk with her pediatrician about having whole milk as a part of her complete diet.
In regards to the preemie question, most pediatricians don’t “adjust” for prematurity after age 2. In regards to milk decisions, I wouldn’t adjust for prematurity but every child is unique and if weight gain a concern, you may want to continue whole milk a bit longer.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
I’m not surprised by your comment. And I certainly appreciate the links and education.
Although I agree with you that milk isn’t the “only” or “best” source of calcium for children, it is by far the most convenient and culturally accepted source of calcium for our children in the US. This post attempted to help parents understand the need for increasing calcium throughout childhood (teens need far more) and attempted to help parents understand the how to get those needs met with milk.
Although you may be motivated to provide calcium without any cow’s (milk) products, most parents aren’t, including me. I take care of children who keep a vegan diet, too and as I stated at the onset—we DON’T NEED COWS TO SURVIVE. So we agree.
Thanks for the links for helping me think about how to communicate about calcium in the future.
Bryan Vartabedian says
Nice post, Wendy. I don’t think we can say enough about milk and its misconceptions. I like to make the point to parents that milk is simply a ‘great vehicle for protein, calcium and calories.’ Beyond that there’s nothing magic about it. I think that we’ve all grown up believing that milk is a do or die food. Children with true milk protein allergy can meet their needs but may do well with the input of a pediatric Registered Dietician.
And the point about lactose intolerance can’t be overstated. In babies, there have been only a few cases of primary hypolactasia (born without the enzyme for breaking down milk sugar). We don’t see the genetic drop off of acquired hypolactasia happening until school aged years or older. But it’s a common preoccupation that is misunderstood and overcalled. Babies and young children can temporarily lose their lactase (enzyme for breaking down milk sugar) during and shortly after a virus but it’s unclear whether lactose free formula and diet really change their course.
When I read charts like this, I substitute almond or hemp milk, our go-to non-dairy milk substitutes. After 5 yrs of raising dairy/soy allergic kids, I’ve found brands that have comparable or higher calcium content per 8 oz serving.
I have found it very difficult to pack 800 mcg into 1,200 calories for my 5 yr old. Not to mention that not all the calcium may be “bio available” and may not be absorbed. I’d love to see a sample menu on how to do this without dairy, milk substitutes, or vitamin supplementation. I’m all about whole foods but there’s a limit to how much kale and beans a child will eat.
I totally agree with you Dr. Swanson. The Dairy Industry has certainly reaped the rewards of their very effective lobbyists over the years! (as they have much of the public, many health professionals, and many nutrition experts talking about calcium in terms of “cups of milk” or “ounces of yogurt or cheese”). Vegan diets (or even just a dairy free diet) are certainly a good healthy alternative for those interested, but most US parents need to make the time, have the money, and do substantial planning to make it adequately calorie dense and nutritionally sound (i.e., vegan diets are naturally lower-calorie, so for some kids, high-cal vegan options are warranted).
As is the case with any food and beverage we consume, one has to consider the quality. This perhaps becomes an even bigger issue when we look at easily portable, storable and relatively cheap options, which therefore are mass produced (an environmental nightmare). As we consume more quantity, smaller concentrations of ingredients, additives or potential contaminants are more of an issue. This would include for various foods and beverages: pesticides, antibiotics, mineral feed additives among others. I would caution that, beyond the equally important issues of allergy and intolerance, suggesting more cunsumption of dairy products entails a bigger package, not all of which is desirable. If one arguably seeks a “better quality” dairy milk, then the cost advantage of dairy calcium and protein is off the table. On another note, it is quite peculiar, that the countries with the highest consumption of calcium, mostly from dairy sources, have the highest risk of bone fracture. The dairy story is not quite as white and delicious as it’s made to sound. I would vote the moustash off!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD says
If I understand you, in addition to helping families struggling with food allergies or intolerance, we can be smart consumers–we can improve which milk we select to ingest, the packaging in which it comes, and the kind of cows that made it. The more volume of whatever we consume, the more toxins we are exposed to. That, I get. And milk is a huge part of most children’s diets.
Many parents ask me how much milk their child needs during toddlerhood and I often focus on limiting it to 16 oz (many toddlers get far more, of course) and are therefore not hungry for solid foods laden with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Milk can simply be part of our diet, not the staple. Yet, quality still matters.
So how do we vet quality? Do you know of good place to look for comparisons?
I wrote a post last year “If It Were My Child, I’d Buy only Organic Milk.” https://www.wendysueswanson.com/if-it-were-my-child-buy-organic-milk/
And living here in Seattle, I’m lucky enough to have milk delivered to our door from a local, organic dairy.
But tell me, how do we select at the grocery? Do you have specific criteria for milk or recommendations for what we need to avoid?
Do you have a link (to the data) for readers about the increasing fractures in those areas that consume the most milk?
As to your vote, fortunately the mustache is off (as you saw) but I’m eager to learn more of what you know.
What do you think the best and most plausible sources of calcium are for our toddlers and children, especially during the teen years when requirements increase?
You summed it up neatly, thank you! I was surprised when I learned about alternative sources of calcium: nut based or rice beverages, almonds, hazelnuts, beans, arugula, peas, sesame seeds among many others. Organic food that did not travel far to get to us consumers is less likely to have unwanted additives (Michael Pollan is a good resource on food quality, David Kirby on mass food production). Joseph Keon’s book has lots of information on dairy related studies.
I know the AAP recommends whole milk until age 2 but it seems antiquated. Thoughts?
I found the following link helpful:
In a nutshell:
Many different food interactions can cause calcium excretion and also affect absorption. Eg:
* High protein intake (omnivore as opposed to vegan diet) causes calcium to be excreted.
* High cereal grain consumption can also cause calcium excretion.
* High protein intake may increase calcium absorption, offsetting excretion.
* Calcium loss in omnivore diets is accounted for in the recommended DRI.
* Vegans also at risk for calcium malabsorption because of increased intake of plants with oxalic and phytic acids, which interfere with uptake. (Most notably spinach!)
* European study that compared fracture risk found that vegetarians and omnivore populations had similar fracture risk, but vegans had a higher risk.
There you go, whether you give your toddler 2 cheese sticks or 3 cups of collard greens to get that 300 mg of calcium, every diet requires mindfulness on the parents’ part.