Should I introduce cow’s milk to my baby?

Introducing your baby to milk before their first birthday will help reduce their risk of developing a milk allergy later in life. Learn how you should introduce cow’s milk to your baby. 

For the best chance at preventing a milk allergy, babies should be introduced to cow’s milk before their first birthday. But many parents have heard that you shouldn’t give babies cow’s milk before their first birthday. What’s the safest approach for baby? What do medical guidelines recommend?

Here’s what you’ll learn in this article:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for introducing cow’s milk, including how cow’s milk to drink is not recommended before age one
  • Which forms of cow’s milk baby can consume before their first birthday, to help prevent a future milk allergy
  • Milk allergy trends: how common milk allergy is 
  • How a milk allergy can impact your child’s quality of life
  • How to follow clinical guidelines for introducing allergy-causing foods like milk, to help prevent food allergies before they start

AAP and USDA Guidelines: No cow’s milk as a drink before age one.

As guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advise, you should not give baby cow’s milk to drink until your baby reaches 12 months old.

  • This is because breastmilk, formula and water are the best beverage choices for babies younger than 12 months.
  • The AAP guidelines are a reminder: never replace breastmilk or formula with cow’s milk before baby is one year old.

The USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines (DGA) for babies echo the AAP’s guidelines on the timing of giving cow’s milk as a beverage — wait until after 12 months.

As the DGA report states, “Infants should not consume cow milk [as a beverage] before age 12 months to replace human milk or infant formula. Cow milk does not have the correct amount of nutrients for infants, and its higher protein and mineral content are hard for an infant’s kidneys and digestive system to process. Plain cow milk (whole milk)…can be offered beginning around 12 months of age.”

Breastfeeding or formula feeding should always be your baby’s primary nutrition source during their first year of life — even when your baby begins eating solid foods.

  • There’s no substitute for the nutritional value that breastmilk or formula provides to babies younger than one year old.
  • Breastmilk and formula provide the exact amounts of vitamins and proteins that infants need in their first year. 
  • Even the most nutritious foods and drinks can’t match these optimum levels of nutrients in breastmilk or formula.

As the AAP and USDA advise, once your baby turns one, you can start replacing breastmilk or formula with whole cow’s milk to drink. Stick to whole milk, not reduced fat milk or skim milk. And be sure that the milk has no added sugars or flavors.

However, introducing cow’s milk products as a supplement can help prevent the most common food allergy.

As long as you continue to use breastmilk or formula as your baby’s primary food source, it’s perfectly fine to introduce cow’s milk as a supplement (not a beverage) before your baby is 12 months old.

 What does it mean to introduce cow’s milk as a supplement? This means it’s recommended to feed baby cow’s milk products, like cheese, yogurt, or milk powder.

In their Dietary Guidelines (DGA) recommendations for children 6-12 months of age, the USDA recommends: “Infants should not consume cow milk as a beverage… before age 12 months.” However, “for dairy, families can introduce yogurt and cheese…before 12 months.” 

And as landmark studies have shown, there’s a crucial benefit of introducing cow’s milk products to babies under age one.

Introducing cow’s milk products in a baby’s first year of life is vital to help prevent your baby from developing a milk allergy.

 In fact, the USDA DGA report recommends introducing cow’s milk products in baby’s first year because cow’s milk is such a common allergy-causing food.

Cow’s milk allergy is the most common childhood food allergy, making it even more important to introduce cow’s milk products early.

Milk allergy trends 

  • Milk allergy affects 2-3% of children younger than 3 years old.
  • It is the most common food allergy in babies and young children.
  • Usually, a milk allergy will develop and appear during a baby’s first year of life.
  • In school-age children, milk is the most common cause of reactions at school.
  • Most children eventually “outgrow” their milk allergy (become tolerant to milk later in life).
  • But outgrowing a childhood milk allergy may happen as late as the teenage years.

A milk allergy’s impact on quality of life

Milk allergy isn’t just the most common childhood food allergy. Milk is also one of the hardest allergy-causing foods to avoid.

Many kid-friendly foods, such as pizza, macaroni and cheese, Goldfish crackers, cake, cupcakes, and ice cream, contain milk. So, a milk allergy causes a significant impact on a child’s quality of life. 

For example, since milk is found in cake, ice cream, and other popular snacks, birthday parties and other social events become difficult and isolating for kids with milk allergies.

And worst of all, a milk allergy can be life-threatening.

How to introduce milk to help prevent food allergies?

Based on the results of landmark studies, clinical guidelines recommend introducing your baby to common allergy-causing foods, like milk, early and often, to reduce their food allergy risk.

Introduce milk early: Introduce cow’s milk before your baby turns one. Start as early as 4-6 months (the earlier the better). At this age, baby enters a critical immune window where introducing common allergy-causing foods helps build a tolerance to them.

Introduce milk often: Sustaining introduction is just as important for prevention as starting early. Feed your baby milk products 2-7 times per week for at least several months.

Introducing cow’s milk in foods 

How to safely introduce milk before your baby turns one?

When your baby is ready for solids, ricotta cheese and yogurt are two recommended options.

  • Be sure that the yogurt or cheese you introduce is made with whole milk.
    •  After all, whole milk is the type of milk the AAP and USDA recommend introducing.
  • Also, be sure the yogurt or cheese free of additives, like added sugar or flavors.
    • Babies don’t need these additives. The USDA recommends avoiding all added sugars when you feed babies under 2 years old.

Introducing ricotta cheese: Whole-milk ricotta is one early dairy option. Your baby should be ready for it if they are eating thicker purees. Ricotta usually contains less sodium than other cheeses, which is important because babies need very little sodium.

Introducing plain yogurt: Whole-milk yogurt is a safe early dairy food to introduce to your baby. Since it’s thinner, you can start feeding baby yogurt before ricotta cheese. But be sure the yogurt is plain, not flavored.

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