What to Do When Your Child Won’t Drink Milk

How to help your child build healthy bones
child sitting in grass eating yogurt

“But I don’t want milk! Do I really have to drink it?”

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Coercing kids to consume calcium is a daily struggle for some parents. We all know milk is good for bones, but isn’t there another option? What about kids who don’t like milk or can’t have dairy due to lactose intolerance?

Pediatrician David Shafran, MD, understands. Here are the top five things he wants parents to know about milk, calcium and helping kids build strong bones.

1. Every child needs calcium

There’s no way around it. “Calcium is extremely important for bone growth, especially when kids are growing fastest, between ages 9 and 18,” Dr. Shafran says. “In their 20s, they will achieve peak bone mass. The stronger their bones then, the less risk of developing osteoporosis later.”

According to the National Institutes of Health, here’s how much calcium children need each day:

  • Under 6 months: 200 mg.
  • 6-12 months: 260 mg.
  • 1-3 years: 700 mg.
  • 4-8 years: 1,000 mg.
  • 9-18 years: 1,300 mg.

Calcium is a must for adults as well (1,000–1,200 mg/day), but only to replenish bone that naturally breaks down throughout life. After puberty, you can only maintain bone strength — you can’t increase it, no matter how much calcium you get.

2. Milk and other dairy products are the best sources

“Milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products are the best and easiest ways to consume calcium,” Dr. Shafran says. One cup (8 oz.) of milk has about 300 mg of calcium. So, three cups of milk per day can put tweens and teens close to their recommended daily intake.

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“Even chocolate milk counts,” says Dr. Shafran. “Ice cream counts, too.”

3. You can get calcium from nondairy foods

Lactose-free milks, including soymilk and rice milk, are good sources of calcium for kids who are lactose intolerant. Some green, leafy vegetables also contain calcium, as does calcium-fortified orange juice – which is almost as bone-building as milk.

Compare the calcium in these foods:

  • Yogurt, plain, low-fat (8 oz.): 415 mg.
  • Mozzarella cheese (1.5 oz.): 333 mg.
  • Yogurt, fruit, low-fat (8 oz.): 313-384 mg.
  • Cheddar cheese (1.5 oz.): 307 mg.
  • Milk, nonfat (8 oz.): 299 mg.
  • Soy milk, calcium-fortified (8 oz.): 299 mg.
  • Milk, 2% (8 oz.): 293 mg.
  • Milk, whole (8 oz.): 276 mg.
  • Orange juice, calcium-fortified (6 oz.): 261 mg.
  • Salmon (3 oz.): 181 mg.
  • Cereal, calcium-fortified (1 cup): 100–1,000 mg.
  • Turnip greens (½ cup): 99 mg.
  • Kale (1 cup): 94-100 mg.
  • Ice cream, vanilla (½ cup): 84 mg.
  • Bread, white (1 slice): 73 mg.
  • Broccoli (½ cup): 21 mg.

4. Calcium supplements usually aren’t necessary

“It’s very rare that I recommend giving a child calcium supplements,” Dr. Shafran explains. “Because so many foods are fortified with calcium, it’s hard not to eat it.”

The same is true for vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium. While many adults take vitamin D supplements, kids usually get enough through vitamin-fortified foods — or by getting 5 to 10 minutes of sunshine each day.

Kids under one year should get about 400 IU of vitamin D a day. After age 1, that recommendation is bumped up to 600 IU.

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“Exposure to sunlight for 5 to 10 minutes two or three times per week — optimally between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. — gets you 3,000 IU of vitamin D,” Dr. Shafran adds.

5. Weight-bearing exercise is just as important

Diet isn’t the only factor in bone growth and development. Dr. Shafran notes that physical activity — particularly exercise that puts stress on your muscles and bones — is equally important. Weight-bearing exercises include:

  • Lifting weights.
  • Walking.
  • Running.
  • Jumping.
  • Climbing.
  • Dancing.

According to the National Institutes of Health, children and teens should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day and do weight-bearing exercise at least three days per week.

So, if your kids have a bone to pick with milk, don’t worry. They still can get calcium from other sources and strengthen their bones with weight-bearing exercise.

Helping your child or teen learn bone-healthy habits now can build them up for a strong future.

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