Cow's milk is the standard recommendation when it's time to wean your toddler from breast milk or formula, but some children have a bad reaction and need a lactose-free alternative. Cow's milk is high in calcium, protein, fat and important vitamins, like vitamin A and B vitamins, which are important for your toddler's growth and health. While most milks derived from nonanimal sources don't provide a full substitution for dairy, they can provide an alternative when combined with other nutritional supplements and food choices.
Lactose-Free Cow's Milk
Lactose allergies or intolerance are caused by a lack of lactase, the enzyme used to digest lactose, in the stomach. Lactose-free cow's milk is simply milk that has been treated to add lactase, making it more digestible for people with a lactose intolerance. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends lactose-free whole milk for toddlers who cannot tolerate lactose, as its nutritional profile is the same as regular cow's milk.
Soy milk is a readily available alternative to cow's milk, but many children who have allergies to dairy also are allergic to soy. Choose a soy milk that is fortified with vitamin D and calcium to get close to the nutritional value of cow's milk, and be sure to check the amount of sugar contained in flavored versions of soy milk. The AAP has released information stating that soy is now considered safe for children and babies, though cow's milk is considered nutritionally preferable, particularly up to age 2.
Nut milks, such as almond milk, sound like they would be a high-protein, lactose-free substitution for cow's milk, but they actually do not contain adequate levels of protein for toddlers. Nut milks are often also low in fat and higher in sugar, particularly the flavored versions that might taste better to toddlers. If you are handy in the kitchen, homemade nut milks can be nutritionally better than the store-bought versions, but you still have to ensure that your toddler is getting adequate fat and protein from other foods. Nut allergies also pose a risk of serving nut milks as part of your child's diet, so talk to your pediatrician first.
Coconut milk is made by removing the liquid from the meat of a coconut. It is high in fat but offers little else nutritionally for toddlers. It can be a beneficial addition to a toddler's diet but does not supply the necessary vitamins and nutrients to make it a good substitute for cow's milk. Coconut milk is sold in both cans and cartons, but the contents are different. The cans generally contain almost pure coconut milk with a higher fat content, while the cartons often contain other ingredients and are watered down.
Rice milk can be part of a healthy diet but is not considered a good replacement for cow's milk in your toddler's diet. Along with being lactose-free, it is low in the protein, fat, calories, vitamins and minerals that are important building blocks for a toddler's developing body. Many flavored rice milks contain a high level of sugar as well. If you do choose rice milk as part of your toddler's diet, choose one fortified with calcium and consult a professional to see what other foods you should be adding to make up any nutritional deficit.
Hemp milk is a made from a grain taken from the cannabis plant, but there is nothing illegal about it. Flavored hemp milk can provide enough calories for toddlers but may be lacking in other important nutrients, along with proteins and fats. If you compare labels, you may find that flavored hemp milk has more calories due to its increased sugar content when compared to unflavored milk. Hemp milk is a possible lactose-free addition to your toddler's diet, but your little one needs other nutritional supplementation.