What is the best milk alternative for toddlers?

With so many plant milks on the market, it can be overwhelming for parents to decide which one to choose. In this blog post, I share what the best plant milk is for your vegan toddler and compare the nutrition profile of other alternative milks. I answer whether soy vs almond milk for toddlers is best.

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Many parents have asked me what the best non-dairy milk is for their vegan toddler as they transition away from breastmilk and/or formula. With so much information out there on plant milks, this is a very common concern for parents. Not all plant milks are created equal so I’ll be reviewing the nutrition profile of each and sharing which one is the most appropriate for growing, vegan children.

Breastmilk is the primary nutrition for infant

Let’s begin by talking about the primary source of nutrition for kids under 12 months of age. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants be breastfed or provided formula until they reach the age of 1 year old. Plant milks should never replace breastmilk or soy-based formula for an infant. This is because breastmilk and/or formula provide a large amount of an infant’s calories, fat, calcium and other key nutrients and plant milks simply do not meet these needs for an infant. The AAP also states that breastfeeding can continue well beyond the 1 year mark for as long as you and your baby desire. There’s really no rule or guideline for time to wean past 12 months.

What is the best milk alternative for vegan toddlers?

Once your infant reaches their first birthday, you can certainly transition to a plant milk. Not all plant milks are created equal, which means they are not all suitable for the nutritional needs of a growing toddler.

A plant milk should provide adequate calories, fat, carbohydrates, protein, and be fortified with several key nutrients like Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Calcium. The only plant milk that meets this criteria is soy milk. This is why unsweetened, full fat, fortified soy milk is the preferred and recommended plant milk for toddlers. It’s also important to not choose a soy milk that states “light” or “low-fat” because this will provide far less calories per serving which is not recommended. Toddlers and children need adequate fat in their diet for proper growth and brain development.

When you look for a fortified soy milk, be sure that the Nutrition Facts Label and ingredients list reads Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Calcium. Most all plant milks list Vitamin D2 which is appropriate. You’ll want to look for a plant milk that provides calcium carbonate as oppose to tri-calcium phosphate. This is because calcium carbonate has a higher elemental calcium, meaning it has a higher bioavailability and is absorbed much better than tri-calcium phosphate. This type of calcium must be taken with food for absorption, so be sure to provide soy milk to your toddler with a meal or snack. Be sure to also shake the carton well before pouring as calcium tends to settle at the bottom and you want it to be well distributed.

Nutrition comparison of other plant milks (per 1 cup each)

Soy Milk

  • Calories: 80

  • Total Fat: 4gm

  • Carbohydrates: 3gm

  • Protein: 7gm

Almond Milk

  • Calories: 30

  • Total Fat: 2.5gm

  • Carbohydrates: 1gm

  • Protein: 1gm

Rice Milk

  • Calories: 70

  • Total Fat: 2.5gm

  • Carbohydrates: 11gm

  • Protein: 0gm

Coconut Milk

  • Calories: 45

  • Total Fat: 4.5gm

  • Carbohydrates: 1gm

  • Protein: 0gm

Flax Milk

  • Calories: 25

  • Total Fat: 2.5gm

  • Carbohydrates: 1gm

  • Protein: 0gm

Pea Milk

  • Calories: 70

  • Total Fat: 4.5gm

  • Carbohydrates: 0gm

  • Protein: 8gm

Is soy safe for children?

Many parents are concerned about providing soy products to their children of fear that it may cause cancer or feminization in boys; however, these claims are myths. Soy foods contain isoflavones, which are plant chemicals capable of having estrogen-like activity. For this reason, isoflavones are called phytoestrogens. However, people seem to couple the two and believe that they are the same; that isoflavones are estrogens. Phytoestrogens and estrogens are not the same, one is a plant compound and one is a hormone. They do have similar structures but are different entities that behave differently in our body.

Soy is safe for children to consume and that includes soy milk. Studies show that introducing soy foods to children from an early age prevents the risk of developing certain types of cancers. Moderate intake of soy is considered safe and beneficial for overall health; thus, introducing soy milk to your toddler’s diet is perfectly okay to do. I recommend purchasing ‘organic’ and one with the seal of approval for ‘non-gmo’.

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Are homemade plant milks okay to provide to my toddler?

Homemade milks like almond or oat milk do not provide the same nutrition as a commercial plant beverage. They lack important nutrients that are part of fortification, such as Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, and Calcium. So, I don’t recommend homemade plant milk as the primary source of plant milk for toddlers and children. You may however incorporate them into their meals like oatmeal or a pancake recipe if you’d like.  

Best milk alternative for kids with a soy allergy

If your child has a soy allergy or sensitivity, then it is best to consume a milk alternative to soy. I recommend pea or flax milk with added protein. These would be a good alternative to soy and a much better option than nut or coconut milks. Sample a variety of brands until you find one that is suitable for your family and one that your toddler enjoys the taste. Finding the right non-dairy milk alternative is important to ensure healthy food habits in children.

If you find yourself stuck or overwhelmed, I recommend seeking a dietitian specializing in plant-based nutrition so that they can help you develop an appropriately planned vegan menu and to be in communication with your healthcare provider.

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Download my FREE handout outlining key nutrients and portion guidelines for raising healthy vegan children