When we were growing up, the case for milk was clear: It was good for you, your parents told you to drink it (which you did or, defiantly, didn't), end of story. Since then, researchers have been taking a closer look at the benefits of dairy products, and this has confused the issue of how much kids need, when they need it, and what kind they should get. The facts:
When do infants need milk?
Cow's milk isn't digested well by babies under 12 months, and it lacks essential nutrients supplied by breast milk and formula. So hold off on introducing it until your baby's at least a year old. (The cow's milk in cow's milk-based formula is safe for babies.)
Then what? Whole or low-fat?
Until your child is 2, whole milk. "He needs the fat for nerve and brain development," says Frank Greer, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics's Committee on Nutrition. A possible exception: If your child's gaining weight too quickly for his height, your pediatrician may recommend switching to low-fat milk before age 2.
Otherwise, switch to 1- or 2-percent milk at age 2 to move your child closer to a diet with moderate amounts of fat and cholesterol. As long as he doesn't have a weight problem, he can drink 1 or 2 percent indefinitely, rather than switching to skim. Kids need the fat for nerve development for many years.
Milk is good for my child's bones, right?
Despite common wisdom, recent research looking at the long-term bone-building effects of dairy products has produced mixed results. "But we do know that three factors determine strong bones: genetics, physical activity, and calcium," says Dr. Greer. "And milk is the number one source of calcium." Milk is also fortified with vitamin D, another important player in bone health, and it has other vital nutrients, including protein, phosphorous, vitamin A, and some B vitamins. Bottom line: Milk is good for bones, but other factors matter, too.
How much is enough?
Recent U.S. dietary guidelines have raised the number of recommended servings of dairy products from two to three a day for kids between 4 and 8. It's still two servings a day for kids under 4. (For kids 9 to 18, it's four servings.) One cup of milk or yogurt or 1.5 ounces of cheese (equivalent to six dice-size cubes) counts as a serving.
But keep in mind that all dairy products are not created equal. Yogurt, for instance, has more protein and sometimes has more calcium than milk, but it's rarely fortified with vitamin D.
Can milk keep my child thin?
The jury is still out on this, particularly for kids. Some studies have shown that the more dairy foods they consume, the less body fat they put on over time. Yet a recent Harvard study found that young children who drank more than three servings of milk a day gained more weight over a period of one year -- whether they drank whole or low-fat milk. Helaine Rockett, one of the study authors, thinks it's wise to keep milk drinking in perspective. "Milk is healthy, but it does have calories. If your child is overweight, switch him to water once he meets his servings of dairy for the day."
So you can have too much of a good thing?
Yup. In addition to the extra calories, too much milk can fill kids up, increasing the likelihood that they forgo other nutrient-rich foods. So limit your child to the recommended servings per day and make sure he gets a wide variety of nutritious foods.
What if my child just doesn't like it?
There aren't many foods that offer the same package of nutrients, but there are other sources of calcium. Besides other dairy foods, fortified OJ, fortified tofu, white beans, and broccoli, some cereals and cereal bars are fortified with it. Before you give up on milk, though, try offering the flavored kind. The extra sugar is a worthy trade-off for milk's nutrients.