You may have heard that it is not safe for children over 1 year old to drink cow's milk. However, there's no scientific evidence that this is true. While most experts recommend not giving cow's milk to infants, it is safe to give milk to children after they are 1 year old.
If your children are between 1 and 2 years old, they should only drink whole milk, because they need the fat for their developing brains. Milk is also a very important source of protein and calcium.
After 2 years old, children can drink low-fat milk or even skim milk if they are overweight.
Some children do have problems from drinking cow's milk. For instance, a milk allergy may cause:
Belly pain or cramping
Nausea and vomiting
A severe allergy can cause bleeding in the intestines that can lead to anemia. But only about 1 to 3% of children under 1 year old have a milk allergy. It is even less common in children who are older than 1 to 3 years.
Lactose intoleranceoccurs when the small intestine does not make enough of the enzyme lactase. People who are lactose intolerant can't digest lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. The condition can cause bloating and diarrhea.
If your child has one of these problems, your doctor or nurse may recommend soy milk. However, many children who are allergic to milk are also allergic to soy.
Children usually outgrow allergies or intolerances by the time they are 1 year old. But having one food allergy increases the risk for having other types of allergies.
Children from 2 to 5 years old should have 6 servings of dairy every day. One serving equals:
1/2 cup milk, yogurt, pudding
3/4 oz. cheese
1 cup cottage cheese
Teens and adults also need plenty of dairy per day. A daily serving may include:
Three or four 1 cup servings of milk or yogurt per day
Two to three servings of 1 ½ oz. natural cheese per day
Four servings of 2 oz. processed cheese per day
Lack G. Clinical practice. Food allergy. N Engl J Med. 2008;359:1252-1260.
Information from your family doctor: Lactose intolerance: what you should know. Am Fam Physician. 2006;74:1927-1928.
Stettler N, Bhatia J, Parish A, Stallings VA. Feeding healthy infants, children, and adolescents. In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 42.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.