How many people grew up with a glass of milk accompanying every meal? Dairy, and cow’s milk specifically, is an absolute staple in most American diets. So when can babies have cow’s milk?
Read on to find out, plus learn:
- How to introduce cow’s milk to babies
- How to spot a cow’s milk allergy
- Plus, how to choose healthy alternatives to cow’s milk
When Can Babies Have Cow’s Milk?
For the first year of life, breastmilk or formula is the absolute best for baby and contains all the nutrition baby needs.
According to the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should be exclusively breastfed (or given formula) until 6 months of age. And even after 6 months of age, the AAP recommends no cow’s milk until after the child’s first birthday.
The AAP expands this to say that “Cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and soy milk are not recommended during the first 12 months of life. If infants are weaned from breast milk before age 12 months, they should be fed iron-fortified infant formula rather than cow’s milk.”
Why You Should Wait to Give Baby Cow’s Milk
It doesn’t meet all of baby’s nutritional needs
Cow’s milk isn’t dangerous—the problem lies more in the nutritional content, or lack thereof. During the first year of life, cow’s milk simply doesn’t have the nutritional profile to satisfy all of baby’s needs. Because of that, babies who rely on cow’s milk before their first birthday are more likely to be anemic, have diarrhea or vomiting, and/or experience an allergic reaction.
It’s harder to digest
Cow’s milk contains a much higher ratio of casein to whey protein composition, which makes it more difficult to digest. (source) And because of the high levels of protein, sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and chloride it contains, cow’s milk can lead to what is known as a “high renal solute load.” This means that baby’s kidneys have to work overtime to process it. What’s more, it’s deficient in vitamins C, E, and copper.
In very rare cases, cow’s milk can cause intestinal blood loss and has been linked to the development of Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus.
But There’s a Catch: Cow’s Milk Can Help Prevent Allergies
Despite the undesirable outcomes associated with relying on cow’s milk too early, there’s growing evidence that shows introducing allergenic foods, like cow’s milk, early is a great way to inform the immune system and prevent allergies. In fact, many recent studies, like the LEAP Study, show that early and controlled exposure reduces allergies later in life by as much as 80 percent.
If you want to introduce cow’s milk for this reason, a regular 8-ounce bottle isn’t appropriate for baby. Start off slowly by mixing a little bit with breastmilk or formula. I recommend trying a product called Ready, Set, Food!, which gives parents the option to add allergenic foods (cow’s milk, eggs, and peanuts) to breast milk or formula.
How to Introduce Cow’s Milk
After your child’s first birthday, you may feel ready to begin introducing cow’s milk to your baby. However, it’s important to know that this may kick off the weaning process for your breastfed baby. How? As you introduce other foods and beverages, your child’s breastmilk consumption will naturally go down as they get more and more nutrients from other sources. That said, if you’re ready to take this step, it’s best to introduce cow’s milk slowly.
Your sweet babe has thrived on your breastmilk for over a year now. Unsurprisingly, s/he may show apprehension to drinking something else.
Here are some things to try to make this transition easier:
- Mix the milk with breastmilk: Slowly phase in cow’s milk by mixing it with breast milk. Start with three parts breast milk to one part cow’s milk to make up a regular feeding. Within 72 hours, any possible milk protein allergy will have surfaced. If everything is going well, start increasing the ratio of cow’s milk to breast milk until the bottle is only cow’s milk!
- Warm the milk: Use a safe warming technique to preserve nutrients, like we’ve outlined in this post.
- Create a replacement drink: Introduce a special new drink, like my “hot tea” in this post on weaning a toddler.
What About Yogurt and Cheese?
It’s clear that babies under one year shouldn’t have cow’s milk, but cow’s milk is an ingredient in so many different foods. Should you hold off on any food with cow’s milk in it until one year?
Some say baby can start having food with cow’s milk in it around 6 months, once they begin solids. Others say to wait until closer to 9 months.
What’s right for your baby? No two babies are exactly the same, and you know your child best. If your child suffers from moderate to severe eczema, that can be an early indicator of food allergies, and you may want to talk to your pediatrician first. (source)
How to introduce yogurt, cheese, and other dairy
- Start with yogurt. Yogurt is usually better tolerated, since it’s a fermented food. Kefir is another option. (Bonus: The probiotics in these foods also help your baby’s gut health.) Stick with full-fat and plain options. And although they make yogurts targeted for babies, they are often flavored with additives and so much sugar—avoid these products.
- Introduce cheese slowly. Just like an adult, a baby may experience increased constipation or other digestive effects from cheese and other dairy products. Low fiber foods are known to bind up even the littlest eater.
Signs Baby Has a Cow’s Milk Allergy
According to FoodAllergy.org, the most common allergy in infants and young children is cow’s milk. Approximately 2.5 percent of children under 3 have an allergy to cow’s milk.
Allergies can develop in two ways:
- Some babies experience an immediate response (more on that below), within two minutes to two hours after consuming.
- Other babies experience delayed symptoms as the immune system creates a response elsewhere in the body. These symptoms appear anywhere from two to 72 hours after exposure. Repeated exposure will continue to produce these symptoms over days and weeks.
When transitioning, you may suspect baby has a cow’s milk allergy if baby experiences:
Baby may also display less serious signs of a cow’s milk allergy that signify an intolerance rather than a full-blown allergy. You may suspect this if baby experiences:
- Upset stomach
If you suspect baby has an allergy or intolerance, stop giving cow’s milk and talk to your pediatrician about next steps. Remember that dairy takes a while (two to three weeks!) to leave the system, so don’t expect symptoms to clear overnight once you’ve eliminated dairy.
Alternatives to Cow’s Milk
Many people choose not to offer cow’s milk to babies for allergenic, environmental, or nutritional reasons. Here are some great alternatives:
Goat milk is less allergenic overall. It also has smaller fat molecules. For this reason, many people who are lactose intolerant find they can easily tolerate goat milk and cheese.
Coconut milk is the closest to breast milk in fatty acid profile. This makes it great for babies who are underweight.
Yes, it’s a thing! Because camels are very different animals from cows, goats, and other hooved creatures, the protein structure of their milk does not cause the same allergies that are so prevalent with cow’s milk.
Grain milks like rice milk, oat milk, etc.
When making grain milk, be sure to soak grains first. Otherwise, the phytic acid binds molecules within the digestive tract, keeping nutrients from being properly absorbed into the body. And note: Grain milks are high in starch content—go easy with them.
Nut milk is significantly harder to digest, so it’s best to offer in small doses. That said, almond milk is usually the most well tolerated. Try my DIY almond milk recipe.
Pea milk is made from pea protein and is a very environmentally-friendly option. What’s more, it has more protein and calcium than other non-dairy milks. It even has more than the recommended daily requirement for vitamin B12!
One alternative isn’t a “milk” at all! Bone broth contains important minerals and electrolytes. Also, the animal proteins within it are easy to digest. What’s more, the gelatin in bone broth is fantastic for encouraging gut health.
What About Soy Milk?
Soy milk is problematic from start to finish. There are many studies that link soy to malnutrition, digestive distress, immune system breakdown, thyroid dysfunction, cognitive decline, reproductive disorders, infertility, and even cancer and heart disease. There are so many other good options out there, so please, just say no to soy milk!
How About You?
At what age did you introduce cow’s milk to your little one? Which alternatives have you tried? Any favorites? Share your experiences in the comments below!