Is All Milk Created Equal?

Dear Mamas,

My little girl just turned 1 a few weeks ago and I’m SO confused! I know it’s time to transition from formula (she weaned herself from the breast at 9 months) to milk, but which milk? My husband is lactose intolerant so we drink mostly soy and rice milk, but is this OK for my daughter? I’ve heard that children under 2 need whole cow’s milk to provide needed fat for brain development. True? Please help me sort out fact from fiction when it comes to milk and babes.



Dear Mollie,

What a great question! There are so many milk options out there; what’s a mother to do?? As you know, babies under 1 should have breast milk or infant formula because it most closely matches their nutritional needs, but once a baby passes the one year mark the choice between soy and cow’s milk is an individual matter.

If a child is allergic to milk, is lactose intolerant or is being raised in a vegan vegetarian family, soy milk is a perfectly good choice. However, it should not be lowfat, and it should be vitamin and mineral fortified. Cow’s milk is more nutrient dense and naturally contains more vitamins, protein and minerals than soy milk. A one-year-old still needs a diet relatively high in fat, and milk is a big source of fat in the diet, especially as kids eat increasing amounts of  lower fat foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains.

Glass for glass, you can compare soy milk to dairy milk for nutritional content:

Fortified Soy Milk (8 oz.) Cow’s Milk (8 oz.)

protein                  6 grams                        8 grams

fat                          5 grams                        8 grams

carbohydrate     20 grams                       11 grams

calcium               300 mg                           300 mg

calories               150                                   150

cholesterol         0                                        33 mg

vitamin A           100  RE                            92 RE

vitamin D 2.5 ug                                 2.5 ug

Rice milk (as compared to soy milk and cow’s milk)  is low in fat which is not recommended for kids under 2 years of age who absolutely need higher levels of fat for brain development. It contains less protein and calcium and no cholesterol. In May of 2009, the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency recommended that children under the age of 4 1/2 not drink rice milk because detectable levels of arsenic are found in many commercially available brands.

Almond milk, which you don’t mention, has also become popular with those looking for cow’s milk alternatives. While it is safe for young children, the fat and protein content is also lower than soy or cow’s milk, and toddlers need lots of protein and fat in their diets to thrive.

So to re-cap, while whole cow’s milk naturally contains the required levels of fat, protein and calcium for toddlers between 1 and 2, fortified soy milk is a good alternative. Almond milk and rice milk do not contain adequate fat or protein, and rice milk has the added problem of trace amounts of arsenic that may pose no risk for older children and adults, but have unknown effect on babies and toddlers.

Hope this helps clear up the confusion!

~ The Mamas



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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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