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Is it Okay to Give my Child Plant-based Milk?

Fennies are proud to be accredited by the Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYNP) for our menus and contribution to supporting good nutrition in the early years. We are delighted to bring you regular nutrition updates and evidence-based articles written by our Registered Nutrition Professionals from EYNP, Janet Aylott and Catherine Lippe.

plant based milks

With so much focus on moving towards more plant-based eating, it is no surprise that parents are wondering whether it might be the right thing to do for their families. But what about drinking milk – should we be changing the type of milk that under 5s drink, and if so what is the best plant-based alternative to milk to give?

Current advice is that cows’ milk can be given to children as the main drink from the age of 12 months. From 6 months, cows’ milk can be included in cooking but not given as the main drink because cows’ milk doesn’t contain the right amount of energy or other nutrients that babies need. Before 12 months, breastmilk or formula milk is the only safe alternatives as they offer all the vital nutrition that your baby needs to grow and develop.

toddler drinking milk

The NHS advice is that an unsweetened calcium-fortified alternative such as soya, almond and oat drinks, can be given from 12 months of age, as part of an overall healthy and balanced diet, however most professionals would recommend that milk alternatives should not be given as a main drink until 2 years of age, unless prescribed by, and discussed with, a healthcare professional.

Although many milk alternatives are fortified with calcium, and some other nutrients, it is well recognised that many of the important nutrients found in cows’ milk are not available.

What about if my child has a milk allergy?

If your child has a diagnosed milk allergy or intolerance it is really important that you follow the advice of your healthcare professional. You may have been prescribed a hypoallergenic formula and in this case, it is recommended that this formula is continued to 2 years of age (or until a time agreed with your healthcare team). Moving to plant-based milk before 2 years of age would not be recommended.

plant based milks

If you and your family chose to follow a vegan diet, then a plant-based milk alternative such as unsweetened, fortified soya, almond or oat drink can be included from 12 months if the child has a healthy and balanced diet, with a variety of foods providing energy, protein and other vital nutrients. If your child has been breastfed, or is on a specialist vegan formula milk, then continuing this until 2 years of age would be preferred.

It is also worthwhile seeking the advice of your health visitor or another healthcare professional to ensure that the vegan diet is providing sufficient nutrients for your child’s growth and development.

Cows’ milk Vs plant-based milk?

child drinking milk

Nutritionally, there is no advantage of choosing plant-based drink over cows’ milk if your child is able to tolerate dairy in their diet. If you choose an alternative drink then it is vitally important that you opt for one that is fortified with calcium and ideally with vitamin B12 and iodine too. The reason for this is to aim to provide a similar range of nutrients to cows’ milk whenever possible.

Plant-based milk doesn’t contain the same levels of energy, protein or micronutrients as cows’ milk, so it is important to replace these throughout the rest of the diet to ensure growth and development are maintained.

What should I avoid?

Children under the age of 5 should not be given rice drinks – this is due to the levels of arsenic that they contain which may be harmful.

  • Cows’ milk can be included as part of a baby’s diet from age 6 months but should not be their main drink until 12 months of age
  • Plant-based alternatives such as unsweetened soya, almond and oat drinks can be included for 12 months however it is recommended that these shouldn’t be offered as a main drink until 2 years of age
  • Always choose an alternative that is unsweetened and fortified with essential nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B12 and iodine
  • Never give rice milk to under 5s
Janet Aylott

Janet Aylott

EYNP Nutritionist

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