Knowing what types of dairy are out there and how to include them is key to building a foundation of good health. Dairy (cow’s milk) and non-dairy alternatives such as soy milk, rice milk, or nut milks play a central role in young children’s diets because they are primary sources of important nutrients. Yet many questions surround dairy: which milk is best? How much does my growing child need? What’s the best way to include it?

Dairy and non-dairy alternatives should offer a good source of calcium and vitamin D for building bones, a source of fat for brain growth, and protein for organ and muscle development. While calcium and vitamin D are included in cow’s milk, this is not the case in milk alternatives, which can be fortified with calcium and vitamin D or not. The fat and protein content will also change based on the type of milk and source of milk; rice, nut, or hemp milks are typically lower in fat and protein.

AgeTypeTotal Daily AmountPortion Size
Birth to one yearBreast milk or formulaUp to 32 ounce a dayVaries based on age; yogurt (after 6 months) and cheese (after 8 months) can be introduced
1-2 years oldBreast milk; whole milk or other high fat non-dairy alternative; yogurt; cheeses2-3 cups of milk per day1/2-3/4 cup serving size
2-3 years oldDairy and non-dairy alternatives2 cups per day1/2 cup starter portion
3-4 years oldDairy and non-dairy alternatives2 1/2 cups per day1/2-3/4 cup starter portion

1 cup of milk is equivalent to 1 cup of yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese.

Your baby will rely on breast milk or formula during the first year of life as a nutrition staple. After around 6 months, solid foods enter the picture, and the amount of milk your baby drinks will likely taper as new foods, including other dairy foods, are introduced.

It is important that your baby eat a dairy or non-dairy food containing adequate fat in the first two years of life to ensure optimal brain development. Also, young babies have a high growth rate during this time and tiny tummies. A concentrated calorie source, such as whole cow’s milk or soymilk, helps meet these unique demands. Infants and young toddlers who drink other milks will have to get adequate fat from other food sources. After two years, your child can transition to lower fat milks, such as 2 percent or 1 percent cow’s milk or other milk alternatives with lower fat content.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, August 2019

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  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Cow’s Milk Alternatives: Parent FAQs.
  2. Castle & Jacobsen. Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School. 2013.


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