Experts have urged parents for years to limit the natural and added sugars in young children’s beverages. Now, leading health and nutrition organizations are getting even stricter in new guidelines issued Wednesday for healthy drinks for children from birth to 5 years.

For starters, avoid flavored milks — no chocolate or strawberry — through age 5. Stick with plain cow’s milk, or, if you can’t because of allergies, unsweetened, fortified soy milk.

Water is good. But juice? Only 100% fruit juice, and even then, only in small amounts.

“Early childhood is an important time to start shaping nutrition habits and promoting healthy beverage consumption,” said Megan Lott, deputy director of Healthy Eating Research, the nutrition study organization that convened the health beverage panel. With the benefit of science-based advice, “we can use this opportunity to work together and improve the health and well-being of infants and young children through the United States.”

The national groups that lent their expertise to draft the recommendations are the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Heart Associations.

“From the time children are born through those first few years, beverages are a significant source of calories and nutrients and can have a big impact on health long into the future,” said Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which helped fund the effort. “Families deserve clear and consistent guidance on what their young children should drink and what they should avoid.”

Among the highlights:

  • Babies from birth to 6 months need only breast milk or infant formula.
  • From 6 to 12 months, water can start to be introduced to get the child used to the taste, especially as solid foods are being introduced.
  • At ages 12 to 24 months, add plain, pasteurized whole cow’s milk to the child’s diet.
  • Go easy on the fruit juice. Small pieces of actual fruit are much healthier. But if you must, allow kids 1 to 3 years old no more than four ounces of 100% fruit juice a day.
  • For kids ages 2 to 5, water and plain cow’s milk — preferably lower-fat milk — are the go-to drinks. Avoid flavored milks and nut and other plant-based milks, many of which contain added sugar.
  • Steer clear of caffeinated drinks and low-calorie sweetened beverages.
Recommendations for healthy drinks for kids from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Heart Associations.
Handout
Recommendations for healthy drinks for kids from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American Heart Associations.

If the child has a health reason to avoid cow’s milk, the panel said, fortified soy milk is the closest alternative nutritionally to what growing bodies need.

But what if your kid doesn’t like milk?

“Get creative,” suggests Stefanie Weiner, a clinical dietitian with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

A milk-based smoothie made with fresh fruit is a nutritious treat, and an incognito way to get kids to consume needed nutrients, Weiner said.

High-calcium foods like dark greens and tofu can also help your children get some of the nutrients they would otherwise get from cow’s milk, she said.

Overall, Weiner approves of the new guidelines.

“I like how they’re organized,” she said. “I like how they are age-specific.”

Her main reservation? Recommending that children as young as 2 switch to reduced-fat milk.

“I worry that starts a fat-phobic mentality in the home,” Weiner said. “I don’t think all kids have to avoid full-fat milk.”

More information on the new guidelines can be found at http://healthydrinkshealthykids.org/