Should my baby drink cow's milk?
Maria E. Rivera, MD, MPH
Great question! For many of us we grew up drinking cow’s milk every single day. For others, their household follows a plant-based diet. Some babies just refuse it. Did you know, milk is also the most common allergy in the United States?! Your baby needs Vitamin D and Calcium to grow. But, there are many ways to get these micronutrients in your baby’s diet, cow’s milk is just one of them. So let’s break it down and look at the evidence at why cow’s milk is such a hot topic!
No cow’s milk before 1
Babies under 1 may not tolerate cow’s milk because their digestive system is still developing. For these little ones the AAP suggests only breastmilk and formula. They can start having small sips of water after 6 months.
After 1 year when can my baby have cows milk?
Dairy is recommended as part of a child’s diet because it is a source of vitamin D and calcium. Vitamin D and calcium are so important for growing babies and children in growing healthy bones. We are also learning that Vitamin D may be important for protecting our body from chronic diseases and reducing inflammation.
What does the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend?
Vitamin D: Kids of all ages need to get at least 400IU of Vitamin D a day. Older kids should get at least 600IU. (Although some experts are recommending as much as 800IU as you get older!)
Calcium: Kids between 1 and 3 get about 700 mg of calcium, increasing to and plateauing around 1000mg after age 4.
What does 400 IU of Vitamin D look like to me, a normal person?
- 32 oz or 4 large cups of cow’s milk
- 4 large cups of almond, pea, or soy milk
- About 15 minutes of direct sunlight a day
- 3 ounces salmon (about half of a salmon “steak”)
- 1 ½ ounces of halibut (small piece!)
How much calcium is 700 mg?
- 2 cups of cow’s milk a day
- 2 cups of almond milk or soy milk (just double check the back, some brands have less calcium)
- 1 ½ cups of pea milk (has more calcium than other milks!)
- 2 cups of Yogurt
- 3 ½ sticks of String Cheese
- 1 whole package of Tofu
- 7 cups of Kale
- 1 ½ cups of Collard Greens
I get your point, this is not just about milk
OK good. Even if your child does drink cow’s milk, they might need to eat other things to get the full amount of vitamin D and calcium they need to grow.
So how can you figure this out?
- Calcium Check: Does your child eat something from the calcium list throughout the week? If yes, you’re probably doing great.
- Vitamin D Check: Do you live in a place where your child plays outside in the sun year round? You are probably ok. If not, it is often hard for kids to get the right amount of Vitamin D just through diet even if drinking milk, because too much milk is not great either (see a few paragraphs down).
- Sooo- supplement? If your child doesn’t eat these foods because you don’t serve them or they just refuse it, consider a supplement. Most kids do need a Vitamin D supplement.
A special note if you are you still breastfeeding after 1 year
You are amazing! Breastmilk has little Vitamin D so make sure your baby is getting Vitamin D from her/his diet. You should be ok on the calcium front if drinking breastmilk.
Some people may want to avoid cows milk for other reasons
- Some experts argue that human’s themselves do not need cows milk
- The dairy lobby is powerful, calcium requirements in the United States are almost twice as much as what are recommended for same age children in the UK.
- Some are worried about cow’s milk impact on the environment and animal welfare. If you are worried, check out Melissa’s blog post on organic foods. Organic milk is a great option if you can afford it.
- Too much milk is not good for kids. It can lead to anemia if they are drinking too much (usually more than 32 oz a day when they’re more than a year). This is because they might not be getting enough other foods, milk affects how kids absorb iron, and in some may cause small amounts of bleeding in their guts.