There is a common belief that when weaning from breastmilk (or formula) a child must transition to another type of milk, most often assumed to be cow’s milk. Special “toddler formulas” (manufactured milks) have also been recently introduced to the market to meet the nutritional needs for toddlers and various forms of non-dairy milks have been available for centuries. Are they necessary for toddler growth and development?
Toddler nutrition is a natural extension of the weaning process from breastmilk that babies generally begin to experience at some point in the second-half of the first year of life. If we look at breastmilk in it’s appropriate context as a full source of ever-changing, life-sustaining nutrition for a growing human body, it becomes clear that this transitional weaning is less about going from mother’s milk to cow’s milk or manufactured toddler formula (as cow’s milk or formula alone cannot sustain a healthy body), and is instead about transitioning to a varied diet of wholesome foods that meet a growing body’s dietary needs. This varied toddler diet may include milk from various sources, but by the very definition of varied diet, these milks are not absolutely necessary, as nutrients are best for the body when their sources are varied.
From a nutritional standpoint, growing toddlers have nutritional needs that dairy can undoubtedly provide. For the family that consumes dairy, readily available cow milks, cheeses, and yogurts are convenient sources of calcium, protein, fat, and vitamin D.
It is important, however, for the family to consider a few things when determining if dairy is appropriate for their toddler, such as a family history of lactose intolerance and milk protein allergies, which are common among much of the US population. Additionally, dairy can contribute to the prevalence of some childhood illnesses such as ear and sinus infections and other autoimmune diseases and digestive problems.
Toddler development is unlike any other time of life, with rapid brain and body development, and the toddler body has unique nutritional requirements. There are various sources for milks that can play a role in providing appropriate nutrition support. For specific nutrition information regarding dairy products in comparison to non-dairy milks and manufactured milks, see this chart (coming soon).
Integrating dairy in your toddler’s diet is best when it is only a part of a varied and wholesome diet. Seek out dairy free from artificial growth hormones (rBGH) and, preferably, that comes from organic and grass-fed cows. Sourcing foods from local farmers helps your toddler know and understand where his food comes from, to help foster a holistic view of food, and to develop a relationship to the family’s food producers.
Nutrition aside, there are political and profit-driven reasons why dairy is heavily recommended in the American diet. The dairy industry is big business in the United States, with powerful influence within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the government agency charged with providing sound leadership regarding our food system. Through food industrialization efforts, the American food system has become, ironically, less about health and nutrition and more about production and yields. Conventionally-farmed dairy is a commodity that, when paired with government subsidies, can be mass-produced and widely distributed in a profitable fashion.
Additionally, due (in part) to the lobbying and marketing efforts of the dairy industry, many healthcare providers advising families about nutrition are educated most heavily regarding the nutritional aspects of dairy-based milk, as opposed to alternative nutritional sources. Providers may simply be unaware of how non-dairy milks (or no milks at all) support the toddler’s nutritional needs.