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Calcium and Your Child

Milk and other calcium-rich foods are a must-have in kids' diets. Calcium is a key building block for strong, healthy bones. But most kids and teens don't get the recommended 1,300 milligrams (mg) of calcium per day.

That's not surprising when you consider that many kids now drink more soda than milk, which is one of the best sources of calcium. And teens who smoke or drink soda, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol may get even less calcium because these interfere with the way the body absorbs and uses calcium.

But at every age, from infancy to adolescence, calcium is one nutrient that kids simply can't afford to skip.

Why Is Calcium Important?

The body uses the mineral calcium to build strong bones — a process that's all but complete by the end of the teen years. Bone calcium begins to decrease in young adulthood, and progressive loss of bone happens as we age, particularly in women.

Teens, especially girls, whose diets don't provide the nutrients to build bones to their maximum potential are at greater risk of developing the bone disease osteoporosis, which increases the risk of fractures from weakened bones.

Younger kids and babies who don't get enough calcium and vitamin D (which aids in calcium absorption) are at increased risk for rickets. Rickets is a bone-softening disease that causes severe bowing of the legs, poor growth, and sometimes muscle pain and weakness.

Calcium also plays an important part in making sure that muscles and nerves work properly, and in the release of hormones and enzymes. So if blood calcium levels are low, the body takes calcium from the bones to help these functions.

How Much Calcium Is Enough?

When kids and teens get enough calcium and physical activity, they can start their adult lives with the strongest bones possible. For the best bone health, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends:

  • 1 to 3 years old — 700 mg of calcium daily
  • 4 to 8 years old — 1,000 mg of calcium daily
  • 9 to 18 years old — 1,300 mg of calcium daily

Besides getting enough calcium, they also should get 600 IU of vitamin D daily. If you think your kids aren't getting the nutrients needed, talk to your health care provider about changing their diet or using vitamin supplements.

What Are Good Sources of Calcium?

Milk and other dairy products are good sources of calcium, and most contain added vitamin D, which is also important for bone health.

These dairy and nondairy products provide quite a bit of this vital nutrient:

Serving Size Food or Beverage Calcium
6 ounces (177 ml) plain low-fat yogurt 311 mg
8 ounces (237 ml) milk 300 mg
2 ounces (57 grams) American cheese 300 mg
1½ ounces (43 grams) cheddar cheese 300 mg
4 ounces (113 grams) calcium-fortified tofu 260 mg
½ cup (118 ml) collard greens
(cooked from frozen)
178 mg
4 ounces (118 ml) calcium-fortified orange juice 150 mg
4 ounces (113 grams) ice cream, soft serve 120 mg
½ cup (118 ml) white beans 110 mg
1 ounce (28 grams) almonds 80 mg
½ cup (118 ml) bok choy 80 mg
4 ounces (113 grams) cottage cheese 70 mg
½ cup (118 ml) red beans 40 mg
½ cup (118 ml) broccoli, cooked 35 mg

Kicking Up the Calcium

Try these tips to make sure kids get enough calcium:

  • Serve low-fat or fat-free frozen yogurt topped with fruit.
  • Make parfaits with layers of plain yogurt, fruit, and whole-grain cereal.
  • Give kids a glass of cold milk to wash down a couple of graham crackers.
  • Tops healthy snacks with low-fat cheese.
  • Add just a touch of strawberry or chocolate syrup to regular milk. Skip store-bought flavored milk drinks, though, which can be packed with sugar.
  • Add fresh fruit or unsweetened apple butter to cottage cheese or yogurt.

Serve nondairy foods that still pack a calcium punch:

  • Add white beans to favorite soups.
  • Top salads or cereals with slivered almonds and chickpeas.
  • Buy calcium-fortified foods, including breads and cereals.
  • Serve more dark green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, kale, collard greens, or Chinese cabbage) with meals.

What About Milk?

Milk and other dairy products are among the best sources of calcium. But who should get what kind of milk and when?

  • Babies younger than 1 year old shouldn't have regular cow's milk because it doesn't have the nutrients they need. Breast milk or infant formula should be a baby's major source of nutrition during the first year.
  • Kids 1 to 2 years old should have whole milk to get the dietary fats they need for normal growth and brain development. But they shouldn't have more than 16 ounces (473 ml) a day.
  • After age 2, most kids can switch to low-fat or nonfat (skim) milk.

The good news is that all milk — from skim to whole — contains about the same amount of calcium per serving.

What If Kids Don't Eat Dairy?

Some kids can't or won't consume dairy products. Here are some reasons why — and ways to make sure they get enough calcium:

Lactose intolerance: Kids with lactose intolerance don't have enough of the intestinal enzyme (lactase) that helps digest the sugar (lactose) in dairy products. They may have cramps or diarrhea after drinking milk or eating dairy products.

Many low-lactose and lactose-free dairy products are now available, as are lactase drops that can be added to dairy products. Ask your health care provider about tablets that let kids with lactose intolerance eat dairy. Hard, aged cheeses (such as cheddar) are lower in lactose, and yogurts that contain active cultures are easier to digest and much less likely to cause lactose problems.

Milk allergy: The proteins in milk might cause allergic reactions in some people. Talk to your health care provider if you think your child may be allergic to milk. Formula-fed infants with a cow's milk allergy may need to have soy-based or hypoallergenic formula. Good alternatives to milk and milk products for older kids include calcium-enriched rice or soy milk (if soy is tolerated), vegan products (such as vegan cheese), and other soy-based or rice-based frozen desserts, sorbets, puddings, and ice pops.

Vegetarians: Parents of kids who are ovo-vegetarians (they eat eggs, but no dairy products) or vegans (they eat only foods from plant sources) may worry about their dairy-free diet. To help them get enough calcium, serve dark green leafy vegetables, broccoli, chickpeas, and calcium-fortified products, including orange juice, soy and rice drinks, and cereals.

Teens who think dairy products are fattening: Teen girls, in particular, may diet and avoid eating dairy foods they think will make them fat. But it's important for your teen to understand that an 8-ounce (240-ml) glass of skim milk has only 90 calories, no fat, and supplies 25% of a teen girl's recommended daily calcium intake.

Offer low-fat and nonfat dairy products as healthy alternatives to whole-milk products — and instead of sodas and sugary fruit drinks that have very little nutritional value. If your teen drinks juice, offer calcium-fortified 100% fruit juices (but not too much, as juice can add a lot of sugar and calories).

Talk to your teen about osteoporosis and the importance of dairy products and other calcium-rich foods in a healthy diet.

Caring About Calcium

It's best for kids to get the calcium they need through a calcium-rich diet. But sometimes it's not possible. Discuss calcium supplements with your health care provider if you're concerned that your kids aren't getting enough calcium.

Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, so it's important that kids get enough of this too. Made by the body when the skin is exposed to sunlight, vitamin D also is found in fortified foods, fish, and egg yolks.

Encourage your kids to be physically active and exercise, which are very important to bone health. Weight-bearing exercises (such as jumping rope, running, and walking) help develop and maintain strong bones. And be a good role model by exercising regularly and enjoying low-fat dairy products and other calcium-rich foods!

Date reviewed: January 2017