Transitioning Baby to Cow's Milk and Plant-Based Beverages
Thank you to nutrition student, Anna Tataryn, for contributing this blog!
When is it safe to introduce cow’s milk to my baby? How much cow’s milk is appropriate for baby? If I don’t want to use cow’s milk, what other options are there? These are common questions, and this article will outline the current recommendations and best evidence for milk introduction to your little one.
Introducing Cow's Milk - Current Recommendations
Use pasteurized homogenized cow’s milk (3.25%) until at least 2 years of age. Do not use skim (1%) or partially skimmed (2%) milks. Fat is important at this age for brain growth and energy. Aim for around 500mL of whole milk a day, but no more than 750mL/day.
You can begin to introduce cow’s milk at around 9-12 months of age. The best way to introduce any liquid to baby is with an open cup. Using an open cup, although messy, encourages the development of drinking skills and facial muscles. You will need to help your baby at first, but they will learn quickly!
There are several concerns with introducing cow’s milk as a beverage prior to 9 months:
- Before 9 months, your baby has a very small stomach (around 7-8 oz). At amounts over 750mL (3 cups) in a day, milk can begin to replace other important foods in your baby’s diet. This means that they might not get enough of the nutrients they need to grow and thrive, such as iron. Iron deficiency anemia has been associated with introducing cow’s milk too early to babies. Before 9 months, your baby is in need of iron-rich foods and breastmilk or formula.
- Cow’s milk is a relatively low source of iron, and can inhibit iron absorption. Babies typically have enough iron stores to last until they are around 6 months of age, therefore iron-rich foods are very important in their diet when they begin to eat solids. Cow’s milk can then be introduced later.
- Cow’s milk has low amounts of essential fatty acids such as omega 3 and 6.
- Cow’s milk has a form of protein that is less digestible and has a high renal solute load (meaning it is hard on your baby’s kidneys). Your baby’s organs such as the Gastrointestinal tract (GI) tract are not fully mature before they are 6 months old and therefore not ready for the types of proteins found in cow’s (or goats) milk. Early introduction is associated with GI bleeding, resulting in blood loss in the stool. This blood loss can also contribute to iron deficiency.
Introducing Milk as an Ingredient
Introducing milk as an ingredient in other foods (such as baked into a muffin) is definitely safe to do before your baby is 9 months of age. Also, cheese and yogurt are safe to introduce when they begin to eat other solid foods around the 6 month mark (find out more from Brooke's introducing solids online course!). A general recommendation is to offer cheese or yogurt once a variety of iron-rich and vitamin-C rich foods have been introduced. Because the milk protein is consumed in smaller amounts overall, there is no threat to the infant.
Alternative Options to Cow's Milk
Fortified soy milk and other plant based beverages are not recommended for a baby until they are at least 2 years of age. Plant based milks may not contain important nutrients in the amounts that cow’s milk does such as calcium, vitamins A and D, riboflavin, potassium, protein, and fat even if they are fortified. Fortification can vary greatly between types of plant based beverages and brands.
If you are interested in using a plant based beverage in place of cow’s milk for your child, Health Canada, Dietitians of Canada and the Canadian Pediatric Association recommend waiting until the child is at least 2 years of age. Continue to use breastmilk or formula as the main source of milk until this time.
From 1 to 2 years of age, soy beverages and other nut milks are safe to use as an ingredient only. If you are raising your infant on a vegan diet or are faced with other allergies or intolerance concern, meet with a dietitian who can support you with assessment and planning specific for your baby.
Introducing solid foods to baby can be an exciting time for you and your baby, but can also bring many unanswered questions for care-givers. To learn more about introducing other types of foods to your baby, find out more about the Food to Fit Your Baby: Introducing Solids class here.
Health Canada – Infant Nutrition:
Dietitians of Canada: Feeding Infants and Toddlers:
Health Canada – Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Birth to 24 Months: