From age 9 on, it is recommended that everyone eat three servings of dairy each day. Until then, it varies. The following is the National Dairy Council’s breakdown of the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for each life stage from infancy through adolescence.
Below are suggestions for how to incorporate dairy in your child’s diet. Also included are recommendations for pregnancy and lactation for optimal infant health and development.
Dairy During Infancy & Toddlerhood
Dairy supports child nutrition starting in infancy and toddlerhood. At about 6 months, infants should be introduced to nutrient-rich, developmentally appropriate foods to complement human milk or iron-fortified formula to ensure adequate nutrition.
Encourage acceptance of a wide variety of nutritious foods. For example, nutrient-rich dairy foods are recommended for children under age 2 who are at a crucial period of growth and development.
Specifically, the 2020 DGA recommends:
- Providing yogurt and cheese as complementary foods beginning around 6 months.
- Cheese and yogurt offer diverse tastes and textures that support the development of future healthy eating habits.
- Zinc-rich complementary foods are noted as being important starting at this time to support growth and immune function. For example, yogurt is a good source of zinc.
- Introducing potentially allergenic foods except for cow’s milk until age 1 because infants don’t have a fully developed digestive system to digest the protein and minerals.
- After their first birthday, as babies transition from human milk or iron-fortified infant formula, whole cow’s milk is recommended. It emerges as a critically important source of essential nutrients to support growth and development.
- Dairy products are a good source of calcium.
- Vitamin D-fortified milk is a good source of vitamin D.
- For toddlers aged 12 -23 months who no longer consume human milk, the Healthy U.S. Style and Vegetarian Eating Patterns are recommended. These dietary patterns include 1 2/3-2 daily servings of dairy foods (i.e., whole milk, reduced-fat plain yogurt, and reduced-fat cheese).
- During this time, flavored milk is not recommended due to added sugar.
Dairy During Childhood & Adolescence
Preschoolers Ages 2-5:
- This is a key time to deliver high-quality nutrition.
- Leading health experts agree water and plain milk are the only recommended beverages for children ages 1-5.
- Plant-based alternatives are not recommended due to their wide variability in nutrient content, limited evidence of bioavailability, impact on diet quality, and health outcomes.
Grade Schoolers & Early Adolescents Ages 6-13:
- This is the stage where building healthy habits impact a lifetime of health.
- Dairy’s calcium, vitamin D, protein, and phosphorus support bone mass, reducing the risk for osteoporosis or bone disease later in life.
- Beginning at age 9, the amount of dairy foods in a healthy eating pattern increases from 2.5 to 3 cups equivalents a day to support an increase in calcium intake needed during this life stage.
- Dairy foods also provide sources of important nutrients of concern like calcium, potassium, and vitamin D.
Adolescents Ages 14-18:
- This stage is about supplying the necessary nutrition for a crucial life chapter. Adolescence is a unique growth period, making nutritious food choices important.
- The gap between the number of dairy foods recommended and actually eaten widens as children age. As a result, teen girls are especially vulnerable to falling short of their vitamin B12 and bone-building nutrient needs.
- Dairy foods provide more bone-beneficial nutrients per calorie than any other food group.
- The nutrients of concern provided by dairy like calcium, potassium, and vitamin D are especially relevant during adolescence, given the increased need for calcium and vitamin D to support the accrual of bone mass.
Dairy During Pregnancy & Lactation
During pregnancy and breastfeeding, nutrition supports the baby’s brain development. Therefore, higher amounts of some nutrients are needed, including vitamin B12, iodine, and choline. As excellent sources of vitamin B12, dairy foods support a healthy pregnancy. In addition, they may prevent vitamin B12 deficiency in infants which can lead to permanent neurological damage.
As good sources of iodine, milk and yogurt protect against neurocognitive defects and lower childhood IQ linked to prenatal iodine deficiency. The choline found in dairy foods (8% DV) can replenish maternal stores, supporting the growth and development of the baby’s brain and spinal cord. Additionally, the nutrients of concern apply to this life stage, and dairy foods close the gap for calcium, potassium, and vitamin D.