USDA: Stick to dairy milk for young children

by | Mar 4, 2021

Dr. John Licata, right, and his wife, Ashley Licata. John Licata, a Charlotte pediatrician, was happy to see updated guidelines from the USDA regarding dairy milk for infants.

The first years of life are crucial to a child’s development, and few things are as important in that time as a healthy diet.

For the first time ever, the United States Department of Agriculture is recommending that infants and toddlers drink only dairy milk and water. Charlotte pediatrician Dr. John Licata said that the new guidelines match up with what experts in his field have been calling for.

“I was very excited to hear that now not only is this coming down from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the sort of medical governing body, but also that the nutritional organizations and guidelines like the USDA have recognized the same,” he said. “It provided another big layer of evidence-based information for the general public to see and read and hear, and it offered a different perspective for parents of young children. I think it’s been very helpful for the pediatric community.”

Dairy milk is full of the kinds of healthy fats that young children need to promote brain tissue and nervous system growth, Licata said.

“From a medical standpoint, that is the message we convey at the one-year visit as infants are making the transition away from infant formula or breast milk,” he said. “We want to emphasize the importance of those healthy fatty acids, and I am very glad that those same recommendations now appear in the new dietary guidelines.”

Pediatricians generally recommend that children transition from breast milk or formula to cow’s milk at around one year old, starting with whole milk until the child turns two and then moving to 2 percent or 1 percent after that. The specific macronutrient makeup of cow’s milk makes it particularly suited for promoting the neurological fine-tuning that takes place in the brain during the first two years of life, Licata said.

“While breastmilk is providing that for the first six months along with complimentary foods thereafter, between one and two years of age the evidence shows that, because milk is such a large part of their diet, making sure the milk has enough healthy fat in it is the most effective way to get that healthy fat into the child’s diet,” Licata said. “They could probably get the same amount of healthy fatty acids from other foods, but their diet is still so heavily reliant on liquid calories. There isn’t another liquid substitution for plain cow’s milk.”

The new guidelines specifically mention that plant-based milk alternatives are generally not suitable for infants and toddlers because they lack several important nutrients present in dairy milk. Licata said that there are a range of misconceptions regarding plant-based milk alternatives that he would like to see dispelled.

For starters, he said, just because a doctor recommends that an adult patient drink a plant-based milk alternative does not mean that those products are also appropriate for young children who are still developing.

“I think there is some confusion about what an adult doctor will be telling the parent and how that applies or doesn’t apply to what a pediatrician will be telling for the child,” he said. “Adults may make the switch to plant-based alternatives because that’s been the advice of their own provider, but then because that’s what they buy and that’s what’s in the home, they feel that it will have the same nutritional benefits for their children, which we know that it often does not.”

Parental interest in plant-based alternatives has grown in the last decade or so, Licata said, making it all the more important to dispel misconceptions about their usefulness with young children. The availability and variety of those products has also expanded greatly, so Licata has made it a point to have that conversation with parents.

March is National Nutrition Month, so there’s no better time to start thinking about how to improve your family’s health. Licata urged parents to stay consistent and not get discouraged when trying to transition their children to any kind of new food or beverage, not just dairy.

“Just because a child does not seem to like a food the first time or the first couple of times you introduce it, it does not mean that it is lost on them or is eliminated from the diet for the foreseeable future,” he said. “I think we often run into roadblocks at transition points, which is to be expected. It’s important for parents to have a conversation with their pediatrician and a dietician if they so choose, to have the right building blocks and the right understanding of what is recommended and what needs to be fed to their child. From there, they just need to have the confidence and the perseverance to attempt it more than once, maybe more than a couple of times.”

Licata appears with his wife, Ashley, a college professor and dietitian in a video project made in partnership with the Dairy Alliance and NCDA&CS made possible by a grant from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission.