Lactose intolerance occurs when the small intestine doesn't produce enough lactase, which is the enzyme that enables the body to digest milk and other dairy products. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this condition is actually quite rare in kids under the age of 3, and most Caucasian children, for instance, do not develop it until they are at least 4 or 5 years old. If your toddler is lactose intolerant, he may suffer from symptoms including cramps, bloating, gas, diarrhea and nausea.
Introduce small amounts of dairy products, a little at a time, into your toddler's diet if your doctor thinks it's safe to do so. Children need the calcium that dairy contains to grow strong, healthy bones, as well as the vitamin D and protein also found in dairy products. In many cases, lactose-intolerant children will be able to acclimate their bodies to gradually consuming limited amounts of dairy. Give your child small amounts of milk with meals, since having food in his belly will help him absorb and digest the lactose in milk. Try him with aged cheeses such as cheddar, as these are fairly low in lactose. Look for yogurt with live and active cultures, which help to break down lactose and make it easier to digest.
Substitute a low-lactose or lactose-free milk for cow's milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lactose-free whole milk for children under age 2, and warns that milk substitutes such as rice and nut milks are not as nutritious as cow's milk. AAP also advises that milk from goats and sheep is not lactose-free. Pediatrician and neonatal nutrition expert Jatinder Bhatia, writing on the BabyCenter website, says that soy milk may be an adequate substitute beverage for your toddler, but only if you choose a brand that has been fortified with vitamins A and D and calcium. Be sure to buy whole soy milk, too, since it contains the fat necessary to promote healthy brain development in kids under 2.
Make sure your toddler eats plenty of calcium-rich nondairy foods. This is especially important if you're giving him soy milk instead of lactose-free cow's milk, since soy contains naturally occurring substances called phytates, which can reduce the body's absorption of calcium. Toddlers need 500 mg of calcium per day, and you can help your little one get what he needs by feeding him foods that are naturally rich in calcium, such as baked beans, almonds, broccoli, bok choy, blackstrap molasses and canned salmon and sardines.
Keep an eye out for lactose in nondairy food items. Check the labels of processed foods for the following ingredients: whey, milk solids, nonfat milk solids and milk sugar. Some foods that contain "hidden" lactose may include margarine, bread, cake, cookies, salad dressing, cereal, scrambled eggs, pancakes, granola bars, cream soups and candies, such as milk chocolate.