From age 9 on it is recommended that everyone eat three servings of dairy each day, but until then, it varies. The following is National Dairy Council’s breakdown of the 2020-25 Dietary Guidelines for each stage of life, infancy through adolescence, and suggestions for how to incorporate dairy in your child’s diet. Also included are recommendations for during pregnancy and lactation for optimal infant health and development.
Dairy During Infancy and 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 and encourage acceptance of a wide variety of nutritious foods. 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:
6-11 months of age:
- Providing yogurt and cheese as complementary foods beginning around 6 months old.
- Cheese and yogurt offer a range of diverse tastes and textures, which can help support 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. Yogurt is a good source of zinc.
- Introducing potentially allergenic foods with the exception of cow’s milk until age 1 because infants don’t have a fully developed digestive system to digest the protein and minerals.
12-23 months of age:
- After their first birthday, as babies transition from human milk or iron-fortified infant formula, whole cow’s milk is recommended and emerges as a critically important source of essential nutrients to support growth and development.
- Dairy products are a good source of calcium, and vitamin D-fortified milk is a good source of vitamin D.
- For toddlers (ages 12 to 23 months) who no longer consume human milk, the Healthy U.S.-Style and Health Vegetarian Eating Patterns are recommended. These dietary patterns include 1 2/3 to 2 daily servings of dairy foods (i.e., whole milk, reduced-fat plain yogurt, reduced-fat cheese).
- During this time, flavored milk is not recommended due to added sugars.
Dairy During Childhood and Adolescence
Preschoolers 2-5 Years Old:
- 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 1 to 5 years old.
- Plant-based alternatives are not recommended due to their wide variability in nutrient content, limited evidence of bioavailability and impact on diet quality and health outcomes.
Grade Schoolers and Early Adolescents 6-13 Years Old:
- This is the stage where building healthy habits can impact a lifetime of health.
- Dairy’s calcium, vitamin D, protein and phosphorus can help support bone mass, which may reduce risk for osteoporosis (or bone diseases) later in life.
- Beginning at age 9 the amount of dairy foods in a healthy eating pattern increases from 2.5 cups to 3 cup 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 — calcium, potassium and vitamin D.
Adolescents 14-18 Years Old:
- This stage is about supplying necessary nutrition for a crucial life chapter. Adolescence is a unique growth period, making nutritious food choices important.
- The gap between the amount of dairy foods recommended and actually eaten widens as children age. 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 — 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 and Lactation
- During pregnancy and breastfeeding, nutrition can help support the baby’s brain development. Higher amounts of some nutrients are needed, including vitamin B12, iodine and choline.
- As excellent sources of vitamin B12, dairy foods help support a healthy pregnancy and may help prevent vitamin B12 deficiency in infants which can lead to permanent neurological damage.
- As good sources of iodine, milk and yogurt may help protect against neurocognitive defects and lower childhood IQ linked to prenatal iodine deficiency.
- Plus, the choline found in dairy foods (8% DV) can help replenish maternal stores and support 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 can help close the gap for calcium, potassium and vitamin D.