A joint news release from Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society urges parents to be careful in their selection of milks for young children. Specifically, they are concerned about the low protein and mineral content of unfortified plant milks.
I agree with most of what they say. Unfortified plant milks should not be a main part of toddlers’ diets. It’s also likely, as they suggest, that there are advantages to providing children with either breast milk or commercial infant formula up to the age of two years. But I disagree with their suggestion that it’s okay to start kids on cow’s milk at age one, but not fortified soymilk. In fact, their statement conflicts with recommendations in the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics position paper on vegetarian diets which says “Full fat, fortified soy milk, or dairy milk can be started as early as 1 year of age for toddlers who are growing normally and eating a variety of foods.”
The joint statement from the Canadian dietitians and doctors warned that low-nutrient plant-based beverages can displace hunger and cause children to eat less food. But the same can be said of cow’s milk. In fact, because it lacks iron, there is evidence that kids who fill up on cow’s milk end up consuming less iron and are at higher risk for deficiency (1). Fortified soy milk provides not just protein, calcium, and vitamin D, and vitamin B12, but also iron. It could very well be a better choice for children.
It’s true that many plant milks are a poor source of nutrition for children. Most (but not all) milks made from nuts, for example, are too low in protein and/or fat for very young children. This doesn’t translate to a requirement for cow’s milk. It just means that parents should choose milks wisely for children.
For infants up to the age of one year, the only appropriate milks are breast milk or commercial infant formula, including soy formula. During this first year of life, children should not drink regular commercial or homemade plant milks or cow’s milk. After their first birthday, kids can continue to consume breast milk or formula or they can start drinking full-fat, fortified soymilk. Vegan children should be consuming one of these three milks (or some combination of these milks) until about the third birthday. It’s okay to use other plant milks as well; they just shouldn’t be the main milk in a child’s diet.
The fact is that when vegan babies get sick from malnutrition, it’s usually because their parents did not understand the importance of choosing the right type of milk. Vegan babies and toddlers should have a milk that is rich in protein, fat, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12. It doesn’t have to come from a cow.
Ziegler EE. Consumption of cow’s milk as a cause of iron deficiency in infants and toddlers. Nutr Rev 2011;69 Suppl 1:S37-42.