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Why do experts recommend that children drink cow's milk?
Milk is a rich source of calcium, which builds strong bones and teeth and helps regulate blood clotting and muscle control. And it's one of the few sources of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium and is crucial for bone growth. Almost all milk in the U.S. is fortified with vitamin D. (Ultraviolet rays are another source, but they're blocked by sunscreen.)
Milk also provides protein for growth, as well as carbohydrates, which will give your child the energy he needs. And if your child gets enough calcium from the get-go, there's evidence that he'll have a lower risk of high blood pressure, stroke, colon cancer, and hip fractures later in life.
How much milk should my child drink?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most kids will get enough calcium and vitamin D if they drink 16 to 20 ounces (2 to 2 1/2 cups) of cow's milk a day. (Most 1-year-olds should have whole milk. Low-fat or fat-free milk is fine for children 2 and older.)
Don't offer more than 3 cups of milk a day or your child may not have room for the other foods she needs to round out his diet. If your child's still thirsty, offer water.
My child doesn't like cow's milk. Any tricks I can try?
Meeting the minimum requirement of 2 cups can be a challenge if your child doesn't care for milk. But there are many ways to get milk into your child's diet: Add it to his cereal. Serve yogurt, cottage cheese, pudding, custard, or shakes for snacks. Make soup with milk rather than water. Add a milk-based sauce or gravy to casseroles.
What if my child doesn't like any dairy products? Or if she's allergic or we're vegans?
If your child isn't getting enough calcium and vitamin D from milk and other dairy products, perhaps because she can't tolerate them or your family is vegan, your pediatrician will probably recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements.
Should I buy organic or hormone-free milk for my child?
There's no conclusive evidence that these kinds of milk are better for children, but there's no harm in them. (Organic milk does tend to be more expensive.) Read up on growth hormones in milk and organic foods to help you make a decision.
The AAP warns against giving your child "raw" or unpasteurized milk, though. Without pasteurization, milk may contain harmful bacteria or parasites that can cause serious illness or even death.
Could my child have a milk allergy?
True allergies to cow's milk are relatively uncommon. Only 2 to 3 percent of children are allergic to milk, according to the AAP, and almost all of them outgrow it by age 3. (Learn the difference between a milk allergy and lactose intolerance.)
If your child drank cow's-milk-based formula as a baby without any problems, you can rest assured that she'll have no problems tolerating regular cow's milk. Even babies who were exclusively breastfed for the first year can usually handle regular cow's milk because they've been exposed to cow's milk protein in their mother's milk (unless their mother avoided all dairy).
If your child drank soy formula because your doctor recommended it, though, check with your doctor before starting her on cow's milk. Your doctor may recommend that you start with a soy beverage that's been fortified with vitamin D and calcium. (See what our experts say about giving soy milk or rice milk to a child who won't drink cow's milk.)
The main symptoms of milk allergy are blood in the stool, diarrhea, and vomiting. If your child also develops eczema, hives, a rash around the mouth and chin, chronic nasal stuffiness, a runny nose, cough, wheezing, or breathing difficulties, it could be a sign that the respiratory system is being affected by a milk allergy. If your toddler develops any of these symptoms, talk with her doctor.
If your child appears to have sudden and severe problems with breathing or swallowing, take her to the nearest emergency room. She may be having a life-threatening allergic reaction.
If it turns out that your toddler is allergic to cow's milk, you'll want to be careful to avoid foods such as cottage cheese, condensed or evaporated milk, ice cream, yogurt, margarine that contains milk, butter, milk chocolate, and powdered milk. Thanks to a law passed in 2004, all allergens must be clearly marked on food products – in this case, the label will say "milk."