Want to know how to choose milk alternatives for toddlers?

I am often asked what is the best milk for toddlers after they stop breast or bottle feeding. 

There are many options, from ‘toddler milks’ and follow-on formula to plant milks like soya, oat, nut milks and even milks made from peas!!


This blog will help you choose the best for your little one and your family circumstances. 

Do toddlers still need milk?

Milk is a significant nutrient contributor to your toddler’s diet. Whole cow’s milk contains energy and protein required for growth, iodine for producing thyroid hormones used for regulating metabolism and calcium and phosphorus required for healthy bones, as well as a lot of other good stuff. [1] [2]

I often say to parents, ‘think of milk as a food rather than a drink’. It’s so nutritious, and toddlers still benefit from all it provides.

From 1-3 years of age, toddlers need approx. 300ml milk per day to meet their nutritional needs. [3]

However, when that milk is a plant milk they may need to consume more.

When might you choose an alternative plant milk? 

You may have been advised to give your child a non-dairy milk by your healthcare professional as part of their medical treatment for an allergy, intolerance or medical condition. Or perhaps you might be raising your child on a plant based or vegan diet. 

If the advice has come from a dietitian, please continue on the milk they have suggested as it will have been carefully chosen after assessing your child’s nutrition needs.  You may even have a prescription milk that shouldn’t be stopped until you are advised to do so as they contain far more nutrients than shop bought milk alternatives. [4] 

If you are following a plant based diet, you may be wondering what is the best non-dairy milk for toddlers?

First of all, you should know that the cartons of plant milks you can buy from supermarkets all contain very different amounts of nutrition.

Therefore, if you are going to choose a plant milk as your child’s main milk source, you should make this decision with a nutrition professional such as a Registered Dietitian.


They will carry out a nutritional assessment looking at what else your child eats and make a recommendation based on that.

Many of the plant milks are very low in nutrition and are little more than flavoured water.

Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of one size fits all, and yet I see so many parents sharing tips and advice about switching around different milks, which may well not be doing any favours to their child.

If your toddler is a picky eater or has poor weight gain, you’re going to need a plant milk alternative with a higher calorie and protein content. Again, a dietitian is the best professional to advise you on this.

How to make the right choice?

For all children, here is a quick checklist to help you choose the most appropriate milk:

  1. Choose an unsweetened version of the milk alternative. Whilst sugar increases the energy content, it has no additional nutritional benefit and increases your toddler’s preference for sweetness.  Reading labels can help you spot any added sugars. There will be natural occurring sugar in dairy based milk (lactose). [4] Unfortunately, nutritional labels do not distinguish between naturally occurring sugars and free sugars. But if you check the sugar per 100g, which reads as “Carbohydrates of which sugars”, you can see if your toddler’s milk alternative is high or low in sugar.  As a rule of thumb, if the plant based milk is under 2.5g/100ml (or 5g/100g for solid foods), you can be assured it is low in sugar. If it states 22.5g/100g or over, it’s high in sugar. Milk alternatives are lower in sugar than cow’s milk, which has approximately 4.6g/100ml. [5] 

  2. Avoid organic versions of plant milks. While they may appear to be more wholesome, they don’t have any vitamins or minerals added. That leads us on to checking for fortification. This is where food manufacturers add in vitamins and minerals similar to those found in cow’s milk, to help prevent nutritional deficiencies. You can do this by looking at the nutrition label and ensuring it includes Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, Calcium and Iodine. These 4 nutrients are essential for growth and development. [6]

  3. Check the nutritional information label for energy and protein per 100ml. They should contain 50kcal per 100ml or more and 2-3g protein per 100ml.

  4. Check salt hasn’t been added. Sounds unusual, but some manufacturers do add salt to the milk.

  5. Under 5’s should avoid rice milks because rice contains inorganic arsenic, a naturally occurring compound. It’s more concentrated in liquid form (eating rice is perfectly safe) and we don’t yet know if this is dangerous for children, so it’s best avoided.


Soya milk 

Soya milks (made from soybeans) have similar protein levels to cow’s milk and so are often a good choice of milk for toddlers following a plant based diet. 

Many, however, are very low in energy (calories) unless sugar has been added to sweeten them. So do check for one that contains at least 50kcal per 100ml without added sugar. Not all soya milks contain iodine either.

One worth mentioning is Alpro Junior Growing Up Milk. It has 64kcals/100ml and 2.5g of protein, which when compared to full fat cow’s milk (63 kcals/100ml and 3.4g of protein) is comparably similar. It also has vitamin C, D, B2 and B12 added, as well as calcium, iron and iodine making it a good milk alternative for most toddlers, you should be aware however that it does have added sugars. [7]  

Pea milk

Pea milks are really good milk alternatives for toddlers as they are higher in protein compared to most other milk alternatives. They are fortified in calcium, vitamin B12, D and iodine. 

Mighty Pea is lower in energy (39 calories per 100ml). However, Qwrkee pea milk offers 53 kcals/100ml, which is the closest to cow’s milk. 

If you choose pea milk, ensure you pick up an unsweetened version.  


Oat milk

Oat milks are a popular choice as they taste nice and children often accept them easily. However, you should know that they are lower in protein than we would like. Nevertheless, the Oatly barista has a decent energy value (59 kcals/100ml), so they are not falling short behind cow’s milk, but the protein level is still very low.

If your child gets enough protein from other food sources in their diet, this may be a suitable alternative, but it will be a dietitian who makes this important decision, and it’s really nice to see that Oatly have made this recommendation on their website too. 

Nut milk

You can get a wide variety of nut milks, from almond to cashew, macadamia, and hazelnut. 

All of them are very low in nutrition and not recommended for children. 


Coconut milk

These milks are also not recommended for children. Like nut milks, they are low in nutritional value. 

Seed milk

Hemp, flax and sesame milks are gaining popularity. They are higher in fat than the other milks but contain inadequate carbohydrates, protein and calories and, therefore, are unsuitable for growing children. 

Homemade milk alternatives

Homemade milks do not provide the same nutrition as a shop bought milk alternative. While they may appear as being wholesome, they do not get the additions and fortifications that food manufacturers use, and so will be lacking in iodine, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Calcium, as well as being low in calories and protein. 

Therefore, I do not recommend homemade milk alternatives as the main source of milk for toddlers. 


Bottom line – best non-dairy milk for toddlers

My first choices for most toddlers following a plant based diet would be pea or soya milk. Oat milk is ok but only if a dietitian has suggested that your toddler can meet their needs from the rest of their diet. Remember to avoid nut milks, coconut milks and rice milks.

 Top tips to help introduce milk alternatives into your toddlers’ diet

  • The transition from breast or cow’s milk to a milk alternative can take a little bit of getting used to as plant milks taste different to dairy milk, and it may take time for your toddler to accept a dairy-free milk option. 

  • A gradual introduction of the plant-based milk mixed with cow’s milk or expressed breast milk may be helpful. Slowly increase the plant milk every day over 1-2 weeks, decreasing the original milk at the same time so that your toddler gradually becomes accustomed to the taste. 

  • Use milk alternatives in cooking. This can help your toddler adjust to the taste. For example, add a little into mashed potatoes, omelettes (if eating eggs), on cereals and mixed into porridge. 

     

If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you might like Top 12 plant based snacks for children and 15 nutritious vegan meals for kids and how to make them balanced.

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meet Sarah

I’m Sarah, a Registered Dietitian, Children’s Nutritionist and mummy from East Sussex. My blog is to guide & inspire you with information about weaning, nutrition, food and toddler feeding. Learn more about me here.

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