How I Got Zen About My Child’s Refusal to Drink Milk

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on May 31, 2013

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This is The Feeding Diaries, an ongoing series detailing the feeding escapades in my house

“It’s the same milk, just in a different cup,” I told Big A when she was four and I realized she would only drink milk from her sippy cup with a straw.

“I like my baby cup!” she always answered. She would even talk in a baby voice. Very annoying.

I tried to get her to switch to a regular cup, even experimented with a reward system which didn’t last (or work). I could feel the fear within me grow. If I stop the sippy cup, she may NEVER drink milk. But then she’d be left drinking a sippy cup for who knows how long?

(My mind conjured up two images: one of her older, hunched over with osteoporosis and another as a child being teased for bringing her sippy cup to sleepovers.)

We ended up moving the sippy cup to weekends only and eventually phased it out. And Big A never made the jump to drinking milk from a cup. This is the story of how I become okay with that.

First, know your numbers

Milk is one of those foods that people either embrace or reject. I, for one, view milk as an easy and convenient way for children to get key nutrients including calcium and vitamin D. These are two nutrients that kids continually fall short on, especially as they get older and calcium needs increase.

Knowing Big A’s calcium needs helped me get a handle on things. After 4, calcium recommendations jump to 1000 milligrams. These recommendations are meant to cover the needs of a majority of, so it’s possible some kids could get by with less (in other words, there is no need to reach this number exactly, every day).

1-3: 700mg
4-8: 1000mg
9-18: 1300mg

As for vitamin D, it is recommended children older than one get 600IU daily.

Second, know your food
In Fearless Feeding we help parents figure nutrition out by simplifying everything. For each stage of development, we not only have recommended food groups to serve kids daily, we highlight the 5 nutrients that kids in each stage are most likely to fall short on. Then we show how to fill nutrition gaps using food. Here is an example taken from the Toddler and Preschool chapter.

Calcium Sources: 1 cup calcium-fortified orange juice (500 milligrams); yogurt (338 to 452 milligrams); low-fat milk (305 milligrams); calcium-fortified non-dairy beverages (80 to 500 milligrams) and 1.5 ounce of cheese (307-452 milligrams)

Vitamin D Sources: salmon (792 IU), light tuna in water (152 IU), fortified orange juice (136IU), low-fat milk (116 IU), soymilk (108 IU), egg (28 IU)

In addition to these basic food sources, we have longer lists in the Appendix. For example, 3 ounces of salmon contain about 181 mg of calcium, 1/2 cup of tofu made with calcium sulfate has about 254 mg, 1/2 cup of cooked greens has anywhere from 90-160 mg and 1 cup of ice cream has 84 mg.

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Putting it all together
Big A gets milk in her cereal which she has about 3 times a week. We make smoothies with yogurt and greens. She loves yogurt and ice cream. She’s not huge on cheese but loves grilled cheese and avocado sandwiches. I usually get calcium-fortified orange juice and she loves salmon sticks too.

So with some fancy footwork, she is doing fine with calcium but I supplement her with vitamin D. Milk and non-dairy fortified beverages contain about 100-150 IU of vitamin D per 1 cup. Even kids who drink these beverages are likely to fall short on the recommended amount of vitamin D. That’s because the sun is the main source and with sunscreen, covering up and smog, it’s really difficult to tell if anyone is absorbing enough.

So both my kids get vitamin D daily. Even in the summer time. I take it too.

We fear what we don’t understand
I think it’s hard for parents to allow children to take the lead with eating when they don’t know if they are meeting their nutritional needs. Once I reminded myself of this, and did my homework, it was easier to relax.

Now Little D is a different story. At four, he will drink milk from any cup and eats all sorts of things Big A is hesitant to eat like cheese, beans and nuts. But he doesn’t love fruit and chicken/fish like she does.

But that’s okay, I’m learning to be Zen about it all. Because I know they are both happy and healthy, with a little fancy footwork on my part.

What part of nutrition worries you the most?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kaytee June 1, 2013 at 1:50 pm

My daughter is 21 months and has never liked cows milk. I breastfed her for 17 months so I didn’t push it but now that she is weaned, she still won’t drink it. Sometimes she asks for it and just plays with the cup but doesn’t actually swallow. I was concerned at first but my pediatrician told us not to sweat it as long as she likes yogurt and cheese, which she does and eats every day. She also gets lots of greens in her diet and is on a vitamin d supplement. So that’s how I deal with it. Sometimes I worry about her iron and am contemplating a multi vitamin. Got any suggestions?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 2, 2013 at 7:32 am

Kaylee — Why do you worry about iron? I would first check her diet for additional sources including fortified foods like cereals. You could consider adding an iron-fortified cereal with a vitamin C source (like oranges or strawberries) a few times a week. That’s what I did with my kids when I knew they were falling a bit short on iron. If you still feel she need a vitamin, just look for one that contains iron (many do not). I don’t have a specific brand to recommend but check health food stores because they are likely to have one that is dye free.

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Marci June 4, 2013 at 6:36 am

Just curious on your thoughts since you mentioned sunscreen, do you have an opinion on the safest sunscreens for kids? And Aerosol vs lotion?

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R June 5, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Thank you so much for the article! My daughter is 22 months. From about 12 to 17 months she was throwing up regularly at night. On the advice of our dr we gave up the bedtime bottle at 17 months…the only time during the day she would drink milk. She no longer throws up at night BUT I worry about her calcium and vitamin d intake constantly. This article has put me at ease a little bit but reinforcing what I have already learned on my own…the subsitutions we are making are fine.

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