Milk and Milk Alternatives During Pregnancy


Read time: 7 minutes

What should you know about which milk to choose during pregnancy?

  • Know what milk options are available

  • Learn the pros and cons of different types of milk and plant-based milk alternatives

While water should make up most of what we drink, having cow’s milk or a milk alternative in moderation can help provide some of the nutrients you need during pregnancy.1

In addition to needing extra calories, fluids, and protein during pregnancy, moms-to-be also need more calcium and vitamin D than they did before.2,3 While cow’s milk usually contains all of these nutrients, some plant-based milk alternatives do not.

Regardless of whether you drink cow’s milk while pregnant, eat dairy, or choose plant-based milk alternatives instead, pregnancy is an important time to eat nutritious, whole foods to reach your daily nutrition needs.3

Read more: Key Nutrients to Support a Healthy Pregnancy

Read on for the pros and cons of cow’s milk and milk alternatives and to see if they will help you meet your needs.

Cow’s Milk Nutritional Facts

Cow’s milk is available in:

  • Fat-free or skim (80 calories, 0 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving)4

  • Low-fat or 1% (110 calories, 2.5 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving)5

  • Reduced fat or 2% (120 calories, 5 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving)6

  • Whole or full-fat milk (150 calories, 8 grams of fat per 8-ounce serving)7

One 8-ounce serving of cow’s milk provides roughly 8 grams of protein, 25% of calcium requirements, 10% of vitamin A, and when fortified, 25% of vitamin D.4

It’s usually best to choose skim or low-fat varieties for yourself and anyone in your family over 2 years of age to limit your saturated fat intake (It’s recommended for children between the ages of 1 and 2 to drink whole milk to meet their unique nutrient needs).8,9

All cow’s milk is naturally rich in protein, calcium, and depending on the percentage, fat. Full-fat whole milk is also naturally rich in vitamin A,4 while lower fat milks are fortified with vitamin A.10 Most commercial milk is fortified with vitamin D.11

Read more:

Meal Plan: Key Nutrients of Pregnancy

What Type of Milk Should My Toddler Drink?

When do you need a cow’s milk alternative?

For some, the naturally occurring sugar in cow’s milk (lactose) can cause digestive trouble in the form of bloating, diarrhea, and gas. This is called lactose intolerance.12 If you are lactose intolerant, there are lactose-free dairy options you can purchase.

If you’re allergic to cow’s milk protein, vegan, or avoid cow’s milk for other reasons, a variety of milk alternatives are on the market. Some are plant-based such as soy, rice, almond, hemp, or cashewmilk, while others are animal-based, like goat’s milk.

Animal-based milk alternative: Goat’s milk

Goat’s milk is a popular animal-based milk alternative. While it contains more calcium, B6, vitamin A, and potassium than cow’s milk; it also has more calories and saturated fat than whole cow’s milk, and contains less B12.13

Note that there is a strong chance that people who are allergic to cow’s milk protein will also be allergic to goat’s milk protein.14 Check with your doctor before making this switch if you have an allergy.

Plant-based milk alternatives

Plant-based milk alternatives, such as those made from soy, rice, almond, hemp, oat, coconut, and cashew are rising in popularity. These milk alternatives are naturally lactose-free, their fat content is primarily the good-for-you unsaturated type, and they can usually fit into a vegetarian or vegan diet.15

Nutrients added to plant-based milk alternatives

Many plant-based milk alternatives are fortified with calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D to provide amounts similar to or greater than cow’s milk.15

But note that without fortification, such as plant-based milks made at home, these milk alternatives will contain only very small amounts of these important nutrients.15 You can determine whether a product has been fortified by checking the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel.

Be aware that vitamins and minerals aren’t always the only things added to plant-based milk alternatives during processing. Sugars and sweeteners can also sneak in, adding empty calories. You can tell if a product has been sweetened if you see a type of sugar in the ingredient list.

Learn more: Minimizing Added Sugar in your Diet while Pregnant or Breastfeeding

Here is a snapshot of the calories, fat, and protein content of a few types of plant-based milk alternatives:

Soymilk contains more protein (9 grams per 8 ounces) than most plant-based milk alternatives and comes in a variety of non-fat, low-fat, and flavored options. Fat may range from 2 to 6 grams per 8 ounces depending on the brand. It also contains more calories than many other plant-based milk alternatives, ranging from 90-130 per 8 ounce glass depending on the fat and sugar content. 15,16

Hempmilk: Unsweetened hempmilk has more fat than most other plant-based milk alternatives – about 6 to 7 grams per 8 ounces, and between 2 and 5 grams protein depending on the brand. There are about 80 calories per 8 ounces, depending on whether the product is sweetened or not.

Oatmilk and coconutmilk: These are generally low in protein with about 0 grams (coconut) to 2 grams (oat) per 8 ounces. They may contain between 2 and 4 grams of fat (sometimes oils are added to help make a plant-based milk taste creamier). Oat- and coconutmilks may have between 45 and 120 calories depending on if they are sweetened or have added fats.

Ricemilk, almondmilk and cashewmilk tend to be the lowest in protein and naturally occurring vitamins and minerals; have between 0 and 2 grams fat, and are generally low in calories (45, 40, and 25 calories per 8-ounce glass, respectively).15 Added sugars and fats will increase the amount of calories in these plant-based milk alternatives.

Keep in mind that ingredients and nutrition facts vary between brands.

How to choose the right milk for you during pregnancy

Focus on eating your calories, not drinking them

While cow’s milk and milk alternatives can be part of a healthy diet, aim to drink milk in moderation and focus on eating a varied, well-balanced diet.17

If you are not a milk drinker, you can incorporate milks or their alternatives with your favorite foods, for example cold cereal, oatmeal, frittatas, and whole grain baked goods.

Read more: How Much Should You Eat While Pregnant?

If you have questions about your diet while pregnant, reach out to our team of registered dietitian nutritionists and lactation counselors for free! They’re here to help on our live chat from Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ST). Chat now!

When drinking cow’s milk, choose skim or other low-fat varieties

Unless otherwise directed by your doctor, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends skim or low-fat milk to help reduce intake of saturated fats.8

When choosing plant-based milk alternatives, opt for unsweetened varieties

Beware of “original” and flavored plant-based milk alternatives, as these products often have sugar added. Instead, look for “unsweetened”. Check that the ingredient list does not have any type of sugar and that the nutrition facts panel includes no added sugar.

Remember that cow’s milk and goat’s milk contain naturally occurring sugar (in the form of lactose) which will appear as grams of sugar on the nutrition facts panel. But these milks, if plain and not flavored, will have zero grams added sugar.

Make sure plant-based milk alternatives are fortified

Supplemental calcium will appear on ingredient lists as tricalcium phosphate or calcium carbonate; vitamin A as vitamin A palmitate; and vitamin D as D2/ergocalciferol (plant-based) or D3/calciferol (animal-based).

Without fortification, plant-based milk alternatives will contain very little of these nutrients. With fortification, they could contain up to 40% of the recommended daily value.15

Choose foods rich in calcium and vitamin D

Eating foods rich in these nutrients is especially important if your milk or milk alternative has not been fortified, or if you choose not to drink a milk or plant-based milk alternative.

Food sources of vitamin D include: Low mercury fish such as trout and salmon, fortified dairy products, mushrooms exposed to UV light, egg yolk, and fortified cereals.20

Food sources of calcium include: Yogurt, mozzarella, milk, fortified orange juice, tofu made with calcium sulfate, canned salmon with the bones, cooked soybeans, fortified breakfast cereals, leafy greens such as spinach and kale, as well as chia seeds.19

If you are a vegan or a vegetarian who doesn’t eat eggs or dairy, chat with your doctor about supplementation before adding any to your diet.

Read more:

Why does Calcium Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Why does Vitamin D Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

Make sure your milks are pasteurized

Pregnant women are advised to avoid unpasteurized raw milk and milk products.18 Plus, the safety of store-bought, fresh-pressed plant-based milk alternatives is unclear, so it’s best to choose pasteurized versions.

Read more: Food Safety During Pregnancy

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Our Happy Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitian nutritionists certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ET). Chat Now!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles

Meal Plan: Key Nutrients of Pregnancy

How Much Should I Eat While Pregnant?

Vegan Diet During Pregnancy, Breastfeeding, and for the Family

Why Does Folate Matter for Babies, Tots, and Mama?

What Should I Know about Iron Deficiency Anemia During Pregnancy?

Tips for Staying Hydrated while Pregnant and Breastfeeding

Meal Plan to Help Manage Morning Sickness

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