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What to Know About Cow’s Milk for Babies

Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on May 26, 2021

Cow’s milk is a great source of protein, calcium, and calories for growing children. You shouldn’t give cow’s milk to your baby too early, though.

When Can Your Baby Drink Milk?

It’s best to feed your baby only breast milk until 6 months of age. If you can’t breastfeed, you can give them infant formula. You can start introducing pureed foods at 6 months, but they shouldn’t have cow’s milk until they are 12 months or older.

Sometimes babies start to wean on their own between 6 and 12 months and sometimes moms choose to wean at this time. If your or your baby wean before they are 12 months, you should give your baby infant formula.

After 12 months of age, your baby can have whole cow’s milk instead of breast milk or formula. At this age, they don’t need an infant or toddler formula.

Why Formula and Not Cow’s Milk?

Babies need the nutrients from breast milk or formula to grow. As your baby grows, your breast milk changes to meet their needs.

Breast milk also has antibodies that help protect your baby from getting sick, but breastfed babies also have a lower risk of other diseases, including:

Cow’s milk doesn’t have the right nutrition or any of these benefits for your baby.

Iron. Cow’s milk does not have enough iron for your baby. This can lead to iron deficiency and anemia. If your baby doesn’t get enough iron, it could lead to developmental delays.

Protein. Milk also has a lot of protein. Too much protein can stress your baby’s kidneys, which aren’t developed enough yet.

Milk protein can also irritate your baby’s intestinal lining, which can cause bleeding. This can lead to blood loss in their stool.

Vitamin C. Milk is also lacking in vitamin C. Your baby needs vitamin C to help build their immune system and to absorb iron.

Fat. Cow’s milk doesn’t have the right kind of fat that babies need to grow. Fat is an important source of calories and essential vitamins for your baby.

Digestion. Your baby has a young digestive system, which means they can’t digest milk as easily as they can digest breast milk or formula.

Giving cow’s milk or other milk instead of formula or breast milk before age one can stop your baby from growing well. Don’t give your baby:

  • Evaporated milk
  • Dried milk
  • Condensed milk
  • Powdered milk
  • Rice milk
  • Oat milk
  • Almond milk
  • Any drink called “milk”

How to Start Cow’s Milk for Babies

Your baby can start drinking milk when they are 12 months old. If you are breastfeeding, you can slowly start to wean over a few weeks. The World Health Organization recommends mothers breastfeed until 2 years, but you can choose to stop earlier.

As you stop breastfeeding, you will make less breast milk. You can wean your baby off formula and switch to cow’s milk, too.

To give your child cow’s milk:

  • Use whole milk that’s fortified with vitamin D.
  • Start by replacing one feeding per day with a sippy cup or a regular cup of whole cow’s milk. If your baby doesn’t like it, mix 1/2 cow’s milk and 1/2 breast milk or formula. Slowly lower the ratio over time.
  • Slowly replace other feedings with cow’s milk until you are no longer breastfeeding or using formula.

Take a few weeks to wean. This slowly introduces your child to the new milk and helps your body adjust. Suddenly stopping breastfeeding can cause swollen and sore breasts.

If your baby doesn’t use a bottle, start with sippy cups or cups instead of bottles. It’s best to have your baby stop using bottles by 12 months of age. Babies shouldn’t go to sleep with bottles because it can lead to cavities.

Types of Milk to Feed Your Child

Your child needs a specific kind of cow’s milk to make sure they get everything they need. It should be:

  • Whole milk
  • Fortified with vitamin D
  • Pasteurized
  • Unflavored
  • Not raw

Flavored milk has too much sugar for children.

If your baby is allergic to cow’s milk, you can give milk alternatives like soy, almond, or oat milk. They should be:

  • Unsweetened
  • Unflavoured
  • Fortified with calcium
  • Fortified with vitamin D

If you give any of these alternatives to your child, talk to your doctor about nutrition. These milks have different vitamins. You might need to add other foods to keep their diet balanced.

Your child can have at least 2 servings of whole milk every day, or about 8 to 10 ounces. These should be served as drinks and not as meals. Limit the amount of milk they drink to no more than 24 ounces of whole milk in 1 day. Once your child turns 2, they can switch to 2% milk.

If you’re concerned about your baby’s feeding habits or nutrition, talk to your doctor.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Fortified Cow's Milk and Milk Alternatives,” “Recommendations and Benefits,” “Weaning.”

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: “Making the Switch to Cow’s Milk for 1-year-olds.”

European Journal of Pediatrics: “Early Cow’s Milk Introduction is Associated with Failed Personal-Social Milestones After One Year of Age.”

Healthy Children: “Why Formula Instead of Cow’s Milk?”

NHS: “Dairy and alternatives in your diet,” “Vitamins for children,” “Your baby’s first solid foods.”

USDA MyPlate: “Infants.”

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