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Last Wednesday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Heart Association, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of  Pediatric Dentistry jointly issued new healthy kids’ drink guidelines for parents.

Healthy Drinks, Healthy Kids as they’re called, are the first-ever consensus recommendations on what constitutes a healthy kids’ drink for kids ages 5 and under as well as the types of beverages parents should limit or avoid.

The new guidelines focus on a handful of key recommendations: breast milk, infant formula, plain milk, and water are best while fruit juice and non-dairy, plant-based milks should be avoided.

This is exciting news because these leading health organizations are finally taking a stance and stating that drinks are just as important as the foods we feed our kids.

Drinks can be a significant source of calories, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats for young kids and they can also fill a void from nutritional deficiencies that are typically a result of picky eating behaviors.

Since food preferences are formed at an early age—even in utero, the first 5 years is a critical time. Plus, serving up a healthy kids’ drink also encourages healthy choices throughout their lives.

What’s more, with childhood obesity still an epidemic and conditions like type-2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) on the rise, the beverages our kids consume are more important than ever. 

What are the new healthy kids’ drink recommendations?

So let’s take a look at the new recommendations:

All children ages 5 and under should avoid drinking:

  • Chocolate milk and strawberry milk
  • Toddler formulas such as toddler milks, growing up milks or follow-up formulas
  • Plant-based/non-dairy milks (with some exceptions).

Beverages with caffeine, low-calorie sweetened beverages including those sweetened with stevia, sucralose or labeled “diet” or “light,” sugar-sweetened drinks including soda, fruit drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, fruit-ades, sports and energy drinks, sweetened waters, and sweetened coffee and tea drinks should also be off limits.

Infants from 0 to 6 months should only have breastmilk and/or infant formula.

Babies 6 to 12 months should continue to stick with breastmilk and/or infant formula. Once they start solids, parents should offer a small amount of water at mealtimes. Introducing a few sips of water can help them get used to the taste.

Additionally, the healthy kids’ drink recommendations state babies should avoid fruit juice—even 100% fruit juice—because whole fruit has much more nutrition.

Babies 12 to 24 months can be introduced to plain, pasteurized whole milk and plain water to stay hydrated. Although the recommendations say 100% fruit juice is ok, it should be limited. An even better choice? Fresh, canned or frozen fruit without any added sugars.

Children between 2- and 5-years-old should stick with milk, ideally skim milk or low-fat (1%) and water. Again, small amounts of fruit juice are OK, but whole fruit is always better. 

If you’re looking for more details, you can read the full recommendations here.

Related: Is Chocolate Milk Good for Kids?

Do the new recommendations include non-dairy, plant-based milks?

In recent years, the amount of people interested in plant-based, non-dairy milks like almond milk, cashew milk, and oat milk have significantly increased. According to the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of plant-based milks were up 9% in 2018, worth an estimated $1.6 billion, while sales of cow’s milk were down 6%.

Despite their popularity, the organizations that developed the healthy kids’ drink recommendations say kids under 5 should avoid consuming them.

For starters, many plant-based milks have added sugars to make them taste sweet.

Although many also have added nutrients like calcium and Vitamin D, the amounts can vary by type and brand and studies show our bodies may not be able to absorb these nutrients as well as they can from cow’s milk, the panel says.

The one exception to the recommendation of avoiding plant-based milks is fortified soy milk, which stacks up nutritionally to cow’s milk.

Another caveat is that for kids who are lactose intolerant, have a dairy allergy or follow a vegan diet, unsweetened and fortified non-dairy milks may be a good idea.

Is fruit juice healthy for kids?

The new recommendations about fruit juice in particular, are a welcomed change and something I think can have a significant impact on our children’s health now and throughout their lives.

Fruit juice is often marketed to families as a healthy food for kids, especially those that are organic or not from concentrate.

Although juice has certain vitamins and nutrients and can count as a serving of fruit—a good thing if your kid is a picky eater—in reality, fruit juice is just concentrated sugar. Fruit juice also lacks fiber, something all kids need whether they’re constipated or not.

Drinking too much juice can also lead to cavities, weight gain and diarrhea.

What about healthy fruit smoothies?

The new healthy kids’ drink recommendations do not include a mention of smoothies, but I think it’s something to consider since parents often serve them to their kids to help increase their intake of fruits and vegetables.

Smoothies are often seen as a health food, yet take a look at most bottled or restaurant smoothies—yes, green smoothies too—and you’ll discover most are filled with sugar thanks to ingredients like fruit juice, honey, raw sugar and loads of fresh fruit.

Sure, fresh fruit has natural sugars and other nutrients, but sugar is sugar.

If your kids like smoothies, make your own at home, using only vegetables and fruit at an 80:20 ratio.

How much water do kids need?

Since infants 6- to 12-months-old should only be offered small sips of water at meals, between 4 and 8 ounces total for the day is enough but it shouldn’t replace breast milk and/or infant formula.

These are the recommendations for water intake for older children:

1- to 3-years old: 1 to 4 cups of water a day

4- to 5-years old: 1.5 to 5 cups a day

Tips for offering a healthy kids’ drink

Substitute sugary drinks
If your kids love juice or another sweetened beverage and you know going cold-turkey isn’t going to work, slowly swap it out.

Try adding water to juice in your kid’s sippy cup or cut down the serving size or amount of servings per day until you can nix it for good.

Encourage drinking water
Pure, simple H2O may not be your kid’s first choice, but water gives their bodies what they need and it quenches their thirst without any unnecessary calories, fat or sugar.

The best way to eliminate juice and sugary drinks from your kid’s diet is to simply stop buying it. At daycare or church for example, you can encourage the people who provide the food to eliminate it too.

Although there’s not much you can do at birthday parties for example, you can do your best to encourage your kid to drink water or milk instead or allow juice in small amounts for that day.

Simple changes like offering a cool new sippy cup, a fun straw or adding slices of strawberries or cucumbers to water, for example, can be enough to encourage them to drink up.

Talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric RDN
If you’re avoiding cow’s milk for any reason, it’s a good idea to check with your child’s pediatrician or pediatric registered dietitian nutritionist to make sure your child is getting enough key nutrients like protein, calcium and vitamin D in his diet.

What do you think about the new healthy kids’ drink recommendations? Leave me a comment.

Author Details
Julie Revelant teaches parents how to raise children who are healthy, adventurous eaters. Through blog posts and videos, her goal is to shift the conversation from short-term, problem picky eating to lifelong, healthy eating and healthy futures.