What are your baby's milk requirements? Do they need cow's milk at all? Not really. Will they benefit from it? Yes. But can it those benefits come from other food as well? Let's take a look.
Milk Recommendations for Babies and Toddlers
Milk has always been the first food parents reach for when their babies need a quick snack. In the past cow's milk was used as an alternative to breastmilk and formula even for children under the age of 1. But what are baby milk requirements? Is it needed at all?
My husband apparently did not want to breastfeed or take formula when he was a newborn, so he was given diluted cow's milk with rice cereal at the age of 3 months! My own mother stopped breastfeeding me when I was 5-months-old and switched me to cow's milk as well (undiluted)!
Clearly recommendations change as we have more research available and as we are more conscious about what food can do to benefit or damage our bodies from day 1.
So it's no wonder that milk has become a hot topic in the media more recently. And with more and more dairy-free options, parents are becoming aware that it might not be the only protein/calcium/fat/vitamin D source for young kids. Meanwhile, the alarming rise of milk allergies has also put milk in the spotlight once again.
The Difference Between Milk and Other Dairy Products
Milk is not the enemy. Every parent should know that milk is a nutritious food for toddlers. Current recommendations are that until 1, breastmilk or formula should be a child's primary source of nutrition. However, from 1 year onwards, you can safely start including cow's milk.
But you might wonder why we recommend dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and kefir before that 1-year mark.
The main culprit for intolerance is the enzyme lactase (or rather the lack of it) which makes the body unable to process the sugar lactose which is found in milk.
In dairy products such as cheese, kefir, and yogurt, the process of fermentation and the presence of live cultures help break down the lactose and cow's milk protein so they are more easily digested by babies.
Is Cow's Milk Even Necessary?
You might have heard that humans are the only species that drink milk from other species and that's true. But drinking cow's milk is really not essential for a human diet.
Its main purpose is to provide nutrients like protein, fat, calcium and vitamin D. But all of these can be consumed through other foods.
Healthy Milk Alternatives
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends only fortified soy milk as a healthy alternative to milk, but in reality, any fortified plant-based milk is a good alternative.
However, plant-based milk cannot provide all the nutrients that milk does so it needs to be combined with other foods rich in protein, calcium, vitamin D and fat.
I personally think plant-based alternatives are a great substitute to meet milk requirements, and if you choose ones fortified with vitamin D and calcium then that's even better.
Protein and fat intake can be safely satisfied with foods such as meat, fish, eggs and other dairy products. And for vegetarians or vegans with nuts, seeds, plant-based oil and legumes.
The one thing important to look out for when choosing healthy milk alternatives is to avoid ones with added sugar. You can also look at the type of calcium added to fortified plant-based milk – those that have calcium carbonate are best since this is the most absorbable form of calcium.
Alternatives to Cow's Milk
- Calcium-fortified plant-based milk
- Calcium-fortified cereal
- Beans and lentils
- Dark green leafy vegetables – spinach, kale
- Fish liver oils
- Fatty fish – e.g. salmon, mackerel
- Egg yolks
- Fortified juices
- Meat and poultry
- Some grains, like quinoa
- Plant-based oils
What If I Stick To Cow's Milk?
That's perfectly fine too. That's even recommended by the health authorities that deal with child nutrition.
After one-year-old, you can safely start serving your baby cow's milk (or other animal milk, like goat milk). If you do then the recommendations are to choose the full-fat options to support the rapid development of the brain.
From 2-years and older, you can switch to less fatty milk if preferred. However, the full-fat options will help to get some extra calories into your child's day as well as keeping them full for longer.
What About The Amount?
Recommendations for daily milk intake are about 2 servings (which is about 16-24 oz or 2-3 cups) for toddlers aged 2-3. And this is if your child is not eating any other dairy products. If they are then you can cut back on milk. The easiest way to count the dairy intake is by the so-called milk portion sizes.
Should I Choose Organic?
There's been a lot of talk about hormones and antibiotics in milk from non-organic raised cows. There is some validity to these concerns so by choosing organic instead, you can be sure that the milk has come from cows that were never given hormones or antibiotics. It also means that the cows are pasture-raised so they have likely had a healthier diet themselves.
Nonetheless, conventional milk is a lot better than it used to be. Nowadays, cows have to be "flushed" of antibiotics and hormones before their milk can be sold.
What About Grass-Fed?
Milk that comes from grass-fed cows as opposed to those that have been fed a grain-based diet is considered more nutritious. Research has shown that the fatty acid profile in milk from grass-fed cows has more omegas and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid – a fat that has been shown to help with body fat regulation).
While non-grass-fed cow milk is not harmful, there's clearly a benefit in the nutritional composition of grass-fed.
Milk For My Child: Yes or No?
So what are your baby's milk requirements? For a healthy child that does not have any cow's milk intolerance or allergies, it's really a matter of preference.
Children who consume cow's milk are not considered healthier than the ones that are taking alternatives and vice versa.
However, if you choose not to give your child any milk, then you need to carefully plan their nutrition to make sure they get everything they need from other sources. If this seems like a lot of work then it's probably best to just stick with the milk!
- AAP Cow's Milk Alternatives.
- Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners
- Guidelines for Organic Certification of Dairy Livestock
- Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage‐based rations, with nutrition modeling of diet outcomes
- A review on effects of conjugated linoleic fatty acid (CLA) upon body composition and energetic metabolism
Excellent informative article on cow's milk! Well written and researched.
One additional fact is that the Calcium in cow's milk is bound to a protein (casein) which is not efficiently digested by humans. So we do not absorb the Calcium effectively, making cow's milk a poor source of Calcium for humans.
How can we be completely certain that milk is completely free of hormones and antibiotics?
Thank you for your comment and pointing out some important things about calcium absorption.
Yes, the absorption is only about 30% from milk and dairy products as compared to the absorption from vegetables which can be even up to 60%. But considering the amount of calcium in a serving size of milk and dairy products and the amount in vegetables, the total absorbed amount would still be higher from dairy if looking at 1 serving size.
In the end, it's all about looking at the whole picture when talking about someone's diet, nutrition and individual nutrient needs.
A lot of people don't eat enough vegetables and legumes (calcium sources other than dairy) so it's easier for them to get calcium through dairy.
Others who are more focused on plant-based foods would probably get enough calcium if the combine their foods well.
Balance is key 🙂