How to Choose the Best Non-Dairy Milk for Toddlers

How to Choose the Best Non-Dairy Milk for Toddlers

Summary of Findings on The Best Non-Dairy Milk for Toddlers

  • US scientific agencies (CDC, FDA) and professional associations (APA, AHA) recommend unsweetened fortified soy milk as the best substitute for cow’s milk for young children.

  • 1-2 years of age is an important period of growth for toddlers. Nutrients provided by dairy products or dairy substitutes are crucial during this period.

  • Plant-based milk alternatives and cow’s milk should not be given until a child has reached 1 year of age. Plant-based infant formula, dairy formula, or breast milk should be given before 1 year.

  • Plant-based milk alternatives should be unsweetened and fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 when serving as a substitute for whole milk.

  • The available scientific literature suggests that when consumed in moderation, the isoflavones in soy foods and beverages are safe. Soy supplements on the other hand, should be avoided.

  • Parents need to pay close attention to the nutrition labels of plant-based milk alternatives. Nutritional values may vary from brand to brand.

  • In partnership with a registered dietitian or pediatrician, parents should assess and adjust a child’s diet as needed when substituting a plant-based alternative milk for whole cow’s milk.

  • Important nutritional information to compare between plant-based milks and cow’s milk includes the fat, calorie, protein, and carbohydrate content of each.

Please note that I am not a medical professional. The information I share here has been gathered from peer-reviewed research articles, scientific agencies, and professional associations. Any questions regarding the information shared here should be directed to a doctor. Thank you!

Reasons Parents Choose Plant-Based Alternative Milks

Parents may choose to give their children non-dairy milk alternatives instead of cow’s milk for several reasons; 

  • cow’s milk allergies
  • environmental sustainability
  • animal welfare
  • lactose intolerance
  • health concerns

As a parent, I started looking into the best milk alternative because my 1-year-old daughter has a cow’s milk protein allergy. I was planning on weaning her from breastfeeding just after she turned 1 year old and giving her cow’s milk; however, I delayed weaning so I could make a plan regarding an alternative milk and my toddler’s diet.

cow's milk allergy rash on young toddler
Full body rash on my baby after eating a couple of yogurt melties with cow’s milk protein.

Gathering Information on Cow’s Milk Alternatives 

When I asked my child’s pediatrician about plant-based milk alternatives at my daughter’s 12-month well check, the pediatrician recommended full-fat oat milk. He said that of all the alternative milks, full-fat oat milk was most similar to cow’s milk nutritionally speaking.

When I did a little poking around online though, I was surprised to read that this was not the same recommendation supported by organizations like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics). Given that these are credible sources, I decided to look more into the question of what the best non-dairy milk for toddlers is. 

When considering a plant-based milk alternative, there are many choices. All of these choices can be overwhelming when standing in the grocery store aisle, and choosing the best milk that will fulfill a growing toddler’s nutritional needs is not exactly an intuitive process. 

Non-Dairy Milk Options

Possible milk alternatives include the following;

  • Soy milk
  • Almond milk 
  • Rice milk
  • Hemp milk 
  • Flax milk
  • Oat milk
  • Pea milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Coconut milk

Each of these milks have different nutritional profiles. Many come in both sweetened and unsweetened versions, and not all are fortified with important vitamins and minerals.

While they may all be marketed as healthy, most cannot be considered as adequate dairy substitutes in terms of their nutritional content.

Growing toddlers have different nutritional needs than adults, so we need to know which alternative milk will provide the same essential nutrients as dairy foods and beverages.

Ruling out Rice Milk, Coconut Milk, and Almond Milk

Additionally, we need to know which milks may have adverse effects on a young child’s health. Brusati et. al (2023) for example, explains that rice milk is of concern for children 5 and under due to arsenic levels in rice. Consumer Reports explains that arsenic is a carcinogen and can potentially have negative health consequences later in life for young children.

In regards to coconut milk, researchers Brusati et. al (2023) note its high saturated fat content. It is also low in important nutrients for growing toddlers. 

I have also ruled out almond milk as a suitable alternative milk option for my toddler. It is a lower-fat milk with very little protein.

Recommendations from Scientific Agencies and Professional Associations on Milk Alternatives

There seems to be consensus among public health agencies and professional associations in the United States when it comes to the best plant-based milk substitute for cow’s milk. The vote is for unsweetened, fortified soy milk.

This recommendation applies to children after 1 year of life and when cow’s milk is not an option for medical reasons or their parents have chosen a vegan/non-dairy lifestyle for them.

International Opinions on Plant-Based Milk and Cow’s Milk

Some of the sources from other countries around the world, however, have a different opinion. Researchers Brusati et. al (2023) review these varying recommendations in their peer-reviewed article Plant-Based Milk Alternatives in Child Nutrition.

For example, the Spanish Society of Pediatrics does not recommend plant-based milk alternatives as adequate substitutes for cow’s milk until a child is 2-3 years old. Similarly, the Canadian Pediatric Society recommends that young toddlers take rice or soy-based formulas until 2 years old. 

U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Interestingly, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) includes fortified soy beverages in the dairy group in their 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines.

This is because fortified soy beverages are very similar overall to the nutrient profile of cow’s milk. This is not the case with all plant-based milks. The FDA specifies that soy milk should be fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin A.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends fortified soy milk as a suitable substitution for cow’s milk. They state that it is the only milk alternative that is close enough to cow’s milk to serve as an appropriate dairy substitute. 

American Academy of Pediatrics

Similarly, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that alternative plant-based milks should not be used as a replacement for cow’s milk unless it is fortified unsweetened soy milk. The AAP also emphasizes that if a child is substituting soy milk for cow’s milk, that child’s diet should be carefully assessed and monitored. 

American Heart Association

The American Heart Association (AHA) agrees with the above recommendations regarding fortified unsweetened soy milk as a dairy substitute for 1-2-year-olds when necessary. They do note, however, that parents should work with their pediatricians or registered dietitians to make sure young children following a vegan diet get all of their nutritional needs met.  

Choosing an Alternative Milk in the Context of a Child’s Whole Diet

Since professional opinions on the best non-dairy milk for toddlers varies in different parts of the world, Brusati et al. (2023) recommend looking at a child’s overall diet and individual needs when deciding which alternative milk to offer. 

For example, if a child is eating a lot of high protein foods but not a lot of fatty foods or carbohydrates, full-fat oat milk might be a good choice. If a toddler is consuming a lot of low protein foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats though, soy milk might be the better choice. 

In the case of a child with a soy allergy though, or a child who does not like full-fat oat milk, a parent may need to consider an alternative milk like rice or almond milk. In these cases, young toddlers would need to be eating foods rich in proteins and fats since almond and rice milk are low in these nutrients.

Brusati et. al (2023) also suggest a benefit in alternating different types of milk throughout the weeks to get a variety of nutritional benefits. Different milks will also introduce young children to different tastes and textures.  

Nutritional Value of Different Plant-Based Alternative Milks

When comparing alternative milks to whole milk, pay special attention to the protein, fat, carbohydrate, and calorie content. Also look for products that are fortified with vitamins and minerals. 

The table below shows the protein, fat, carbohydrate, calcium, mineral, and vitamin values for whole milk and nondairy milks; soy milk, oat milk, pea milk, and almond milk. I list the brand of each milk since nutritional values can vary from brand to brand. 

ProteinFatCarbsCalciumVit DVit AVit B12
O Organics Whole Cow’s Milk (1 cup)8g8g12g310 mcg4.5mcg90mcg1.2mcg
Silk Organic Unsweetened Soymilk (1 cup)7g4.5g4g300mcg3mcg140mcg2.5mcg
Ripple Unsweetened Pea Protein Milk8g4.5g<1g440mcg5mcg110mcg2.5mcg
Oatly Full Fat Oatmilk (1 cup)3g9g15g350mcg3.6mcg160mcg1.2mgc
Almond Breeze Unsweetened Almond Milk (1 cup)1g2.5g1g450mcg5mcg150mcg

Fats, Proteins, and Carbohydrates: Cow’s Milk Vs Soy Milk and Full-Fat Oat Milk

Oatly’s Full Fat Oatmilk is very similar to whole cow’s milk in terms of fat and carbohydrate content. Full-fat oat milk has 1 gram more per serving of fat than cow’s milk, however, it has notably less protein.

Researchers Brusati et. al (2023) comment though, that oat milk usually is not the best choice for young toddlers. This is because oat milk has a lot of sugars and carbohydrates in it. Since toddlers are usually already consuming plenty of these nutrients from foods, they do not need the additional sugars.

Soy milk on the other hand is high in protein, and has just 1 less gram of protein per serving compared to cow’s milk. It is however, lower in fat than full-fat oat milk.

Animal-Based Protein Vs Plant-Based Protein

Brusati et. al (2023) note that animal-based proteins are superior to plant-based proteins because of their amino acids. The body also digests animal-based proteins more easily than plant-based proteins. Even though soy protein may not compare to cow’s milk protein though, young children can consume other high-quality sources of protein through other foods in their diets. 

Controversy Over Soy

While fortified unsweetened soy milk is recommended by many agencies and associations in the US as the most suitable substitute for whole milk, soy products have some controversy surrounding them.

Isoflavones (Plant Estrogen) in Soy

The controversy is in regards to the high levels of isoflavones found in soy. Isoflavones are plant estrogen compounds that act similarly to the hormone estrogen that naturally occurs in the body. 

Controversy has led to questions regarding whether or not soy disrupts hormone levels, impacts the timing of puberty, increases or decreases breast cancer risk, or increases risk of developing Kawasaki Disease in young children. It seems that much of the controversy is based on unsubstantiated claims.

Kawasaki Disease

Conduct a google search on Kawasaki disease risk and soy, and you will come across several blog posts and articles loosely referencing a study that concluded a link between increased risk of Kawasaki disease and high soy intake in children. And especially in Asian American children. Most of these articles do not provide any details about the study they reference though, and do not even link to the original research article.

Researchers Messina et al. (2017), however, address the specifics and question this finding regarding Kawasaki Disease in their article Health Impact of Childhood and Adolescent Soy Consumption.

Messina et al. (2017) explain that the study linking Kawasaki Disease risk and soy consumption should not be taken as a conclusive result. For one, the authors note that only 51 Asian American children were assessed in the study, which is hardly enough to generalize to the wider population. Additionally, isoflavone intake from soy was not very high, even in those with Kawasaki Disease.  

Breast Cancer

While there has been some controversy over whether or not the isoflavones in soy increase risk of breast cancer, Mayo Clinic explains that the isoflavones in food do not significantly raise a person’s estrogen levels. They can if taken in supplement form, but drinking a moderate amount of soy milk or eating soy naturally found in foods like edamame and tofu will not. Mayo Clinic defines a moderate amount as one to two servings a day. 

In a meta-analysis study from the National Library of Medicine, researchers concluded that pre and post-menopausal women who consumed soy isoflavones showed decreased risk of breast cancer. Furthermore, WebMD claims that a myth about soy fueling cancer cell growth simply came from a spread of misinformation among the public and non-reputable sources. As noted earlier though, there are few available studies on young children and more need to be conducted.  

Evidence Supporting the Safety of Moderate Soy Consumption

The general consensus given the available scientific literature thus far, is that soy is generally safe and healthy to consume in moderate amounts. For more details on the available research regarding soy and hormone disruption and disease concerns, I suggest reading the Health Impact of Childhood and Adolescent Soy Consumption. It reviews a number of studies showing that moderate soy consumption is safe.

The authors of this article do note however, that more studies need to be done, especially on young children.

Plant-Based Milk Alternatives and a Child’s Overall Diet

The job of ensuring our children have all that they need nutritionally is a big one! The best we can do is work with the health professionals and stay up to date on trusted resources and recommendations.

We can also be cognizant of nutrition labels and learn about the benefits of different nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. No child or person is going to have a perfect diet, but we can all strive to have a healthy and well-balanced diet. 

Iron-Rich Foods for Toddlers
Baby Self-Weaning from Breastfeeding
Banana Chia Seed Pudding Recipe with Non-Dairy Milk


Peer-reviewed research articles:

Brusati, M., Baroni, L., Rizzo, G., Giampieri, F., & Battino, M. (2023). Plant-Based Milk Alternatives in Child Nutrition. Foods, 12(7).

Messina, M., Rogero, M. M., Fisberg, M., & Waitzberg, D. (2017). Health impact of childhood and adolescent soy consumption. Nutrition Reviews, 75(7), 500-515.

U.S. scientific agencies and professional associations:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

U.S. Food & Drug Administration

American Academy of Pediatrics

American Heart Association


  • Gussi Ochi

    Just another mom learning and growing in motherhood everyday! | BA in psychology, MA in art therapy & counseling, former licensed massage therapist

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