There’s no doubt about it: milk is a major mainstay in the American diet. It’s considered an essential source of protein, iron, calcium and vitamin D. Pediatricians, who unfortunately aren’t taught about nutrition in medical school, recommend 12-20 ounces of whole milk per day to a baby who has weaned off of breast milk or formula. Why? Because, according to the National Dairy Council, it’s the only way our little ones can get proper amounts of calcium, minerals, and fat calories.
But over the last decade, there has been a huge growth in the number of authorities who advise against dairy for babies… so what’s the real deal, anyway? And what about those with milk allergies? Are those sweet little babes doomed to a state of malnutrition? If your child is allergic to milk, or it’s your personal choice not to give milk to your child, let the worrying stop here. There are many options that will provide even more optimal amounts of these nutrients than cow’s milk.
Before I get into this, I need to first say that the best alternative to dairy milk for babies is breast milk. Breastfeed as long as possible, and as you wean, look for ways to get great nutrients without using dairy.
How to Get Calcium Without Dairy
Children ages 1-10 need approximately 600-800 mg of calcium per day. 1 cup of milk provides 180 mg, but many experts say only 20% of this can be absorbed by the body. Let’s see how milk stacks up against non-dairy alternatives, whose calcium has a much higher absorption rate in the body:
1 cup calcium-fortified orange juice: 300 mg
1 oz sesame seeds: 280 mg
3 oz salmon: 180 mg
1/2 cup collard greens: 180 mg
1/2 cup rhubarb: 174 mg
1/2 cup spinach: 130 mg
1/2 calcium-fortified cereal: 100-200 mg
1/2 cup kale: 90 mg
1/2 cup cooked beans: 75 mg
1 medium orange: 50 mg
1/2 cup broccoli: 47
So, what to feed a 1 year old? Fruits and veggies can be lightly steamed, pureed in the blender, and frozen into baby food trays to save money and give your baby higher quality baby food than you can get at the store. Sesame seeds can be stirred into purees, yogurts, applesauce, etc. I’m sure you won’t have any problem getting them to drink fresh orange juice or eat organic, low-sugar cereal as a snack 😉 By the way, the above list is by no means comprehensive. I just wanted to give you a few good examples of foods with good calcium sources, to illustrate just how easy it is to get calcium in your diet without excessive dairy intake.
Note: Please do not substitute soy milk for cow’s milk in your child’s diet. Some soy foods are appropriate (in their natural and fermented form: edamame, tempeh, tofu in moderation) but soy milk, soy protein powder, soy energy bars, etc are processed in such a way that they mimic estrogen in your body, which is especially harmful to children.
How to Get Enough Fat Without Dairy
Because they grow so quickly, small children need a lot of calories relative to their size, and plenty of healthy fats for immune system and brain development.
I know so many of us moms get concerned that our young child isn’t eating enough, because kids so often have weird appetite fluctuations, eating hardly anything for a few meals, then scarfing down a ton of food at the next meal. Because of this, frequent meals that have high nutrient and caloric density are important.
You can increase calories and healthy fats in many ways. Organic extra virgin olive oil can be added to mashed lentils or beans, or even to mashed potatoes. Coconut oil can be added to mashed sweet potatoes or melted over cooked root vegetables like carrots and squashes. Nut and seed purees can also add very healthy fats… tahini (sesame seed butter) and smooth almond butter are good options. (Whole nuts should be avoided until the age of 5, because of the risk of choking.) These are all examples of healthy essential fats. The fat content in cow’s milk is almost completely saturated fat, which is not an essential fat needed by the body.
The idea that a baby MUST wean from breast milk or formula straight to cow’s milk is a fallacy. Cow’s milk is molecularly very different than human milk. The protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and essential fatty acids are digested differently. Early feeding of human babies on cow’s milk is known to increase the likelihood of developing a cow’s milk allergy, which affects 1 in 10 babies now. Common symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, colic, eczema, hives, bronchitis, asthma, ear infections, and sleeplessness. If your baby has 2 or 3 of these symptoms, there’s a good chance it’s a milk sensitivity. The easiest way to confirm this without invasive testing is to take your child off milk for 2 weeks and pay close attention to disappearing symptoms.
Good dairy alternatives are almond milk, other nut milks, coconut milk, etc. Your baby doesn’t need 20 ounces of these per day, but they’re okay for drinking or adding to meals when you would otherwise add dairy. Once your baby is 12 months old, her liquid intake can come from breast milk, clean water, fresh juices, or alternative milks.
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