Here’s the scoop on your child’s beverage options. Learn which ones are healthiest and which ones to limit or avoid and why.
Note: The information in this slideshow is for children ages 1 and older. Babies under 6 months should drink only breast milk or formula. Infants 6 to 12 months can also have small amounts of water. Experts recommend that you wait until your child turns 1 to introduce cow’s milk.
You can’t go wrong with plain water. It hydrates, helps regulate body temperature, and helps prevent constipation and urinary tract infections – all without adding calories or sugar to the diet. It can also be a good source of fluoride, which is important for healthy teeth. See when to start and how much water your infant can drink.
Flavored or enhanced water
Flavored water may contain ingredients that your child doesn’t need (sugar, artificial sweeteners) or already gets enough of (vitamins). It may even contain additives that could be harmful (caffeine, herbs). And it’s expensive. You can easily make your own by adding a little fruit juice to plain water. If you’re buying one, choose a brand that’s flavored with 100 percent fruit juice and doesn’t have any added sugar.
Cow’s milk is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D as well as protein and other nutrients that are important for healthy growth. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), most kids will get enough calcium and vitamin D if they drink 16 to 20 ounces of cow’s milk a day. Offer 1-year-olds whole milk (unless they’re at high risk for obesity). Low-fat milk is fine for children 2 and older. Don’t offer more than 3 cups of milk each day or your child may not have room for the other foods he needs.
Lactose-free or reduced-lactose milk
These types of milk are for children who are lactose intolerant. They contain the same nutrients found in regular cow’s milk, but they tend to taste slightly sweeter
It’s fine to continue nursing your toddler for as long as you both want. Breast milk is still a good source of calories and nutrition, and nursing can continue to be an important source of emotional support.
Cultured dairy beverages: yogurt drinks, kefir, acidophilus
Most of these products have the same nutrients as milk, but some aren’t fortified with vitamin D, so read the nutrition label. Some are made with live bacteria cultures which may aid digestion and protect the body from harmful gut bacteria. However, there may not be enough bacteria in one serving to make a difference to your child’s health. Flavored varieties contain added sugar.
Soy milk is an acceptable alternative to cow’s milk, but it contains fewer nutrients. If your child drinks soy milk as a substitute for cow’s milk, his doctor may recommend a vitamin supplement. To make the most of soy milk, choose a brand that’s fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12. Get the whole-fat version (not low-fat or nonfat) for kids under 2. Soy milk contains no saturated fat or cholesterol and may be enriched with omega-3 fats. Flavored varieties tend to contain added sugar.
Rice milk contains fewer nutrients and less protein than cow’s milk, so it’s not a good substitute. To make the most of rice milk, choose a brand that’s fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12. Get the whole-fat version (not low-fat or nonfat) for kids under 2. Sweetened varieties of rice milk contain added sugar.
Note: Experts at Consumer Reports recently found worrisome levels of arsenic in rice milk (and other rice products). Based on those results, they recommend that children under the age of 5 not drink rice milk on a daily basis.
Almond milk contains fewer nutrients and less protein than cow’s milk, so it’s not a good substitute. To make the most of almond milk, choose a brand that’s fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12. Get the whole-fat version (not low-fat or nonfat) for kids under 2. Sweetened varieties of almond milk contain added sugar.
Coconut milk beverage
Coconut milk beverage contains fewer nutrients and less protein than cow’s milk, so it’s not a good substitute. To make the most of this beverage, choose a brand that’s fortified with calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12. Some varieties have a bit more saturated fat than low-fat cow’s milk; others have less. And while health claims have been made recently for the fat in coconut oil, there’s no real evidence that it’s particularly good or bad for you. Sweetened varieties of coconut milk beverage contain added sugar.
Juice is an acceptable way to get one serving of fruit each day, but whole fruit is a better choice. Juice lacks fiber and contains less of some nutrients than whole fruit. Plus, kids tend to fill up on juice instead of healthier foods. Choose 100 percent juice and limit it to 3/4 cup (6 ounces) per day. (Kids age 7 and older can have up to 8 ounces or 1 cup a day.) Read more about the pros and cons of serving juice to your child.
Tomato and vegetable juice
These juices can be a way to get one serving of vegetables a day. However, some vegetable juices contain more than half of a child’s daily sodium allowance in one serving, so choose a low-sodium version.
If you make them yourself from real fruit, lemonade and limeade can be a reasonable source of vitamin C, but both homemade and store-bought versions tend to contain a lot of sugar.
Soda and diet soda
Soda has no nutritional value. Most brands contain artificial color or flavor. They also contain sugar or artificial sweeteners. A better alternative is to make your own “juice soda” with sparkling water and 100 percent fruit juice, but limit the juice to 6 ounces a day.
Green or black tea
Regular tea (green or black) contains antioxidants, which are beneficial, but the tea may also contain caffeine. It’s probably okay to serve your child 1/4 cup (2 ounces) of tea a day if it’s decaffeinated or brewed weak. Add milk for more nutritional value.
Herbal tea has no nutritional value. While some herbal teas may be safe, others have potentially undesirable effects and some are toxic.
Sweetened drinks (“juice drinks” that aren’t 100% juice, sports drinks, sweet tea, diet tea)
Most of these products have no nutritional value. They contain either artificial sweeteners or empty calories from added sugar. They may also contain artificial color or flavor. Sports drinks contain extra sodium, which young children don’t need.
These products have no nutritional value. Most energy drinks contain large amounts of caffeine as well as sugar or artificial sweeteners. Some contain herbs that may not be safe for children.