Just the mention of milk gives you a warm fuzzy feeling generally associated with ‘comfort food'. Milk is the ultimate safe food source, healthy, full of natural goodness; it builds strong teeth and bones and has enough goodness to ensure healthy physical and mental development
Many mothers start introducing their babies to cow’s milk after six months old or when they are ready to sample their first cereal. It also makes economic sense to buy the same milk for the whole family, baby included!
When Should You Introduce Your Baby to Cow’s Milk?
Many industrialized countries such as Australia, America, and the United Kingdom strongly recommend that babies transition to cow's milk only from one-years-old. This is due to the associated short and long-term health risks when babies are introduced to cow’s milk too soon.
I know it sounds like a cliché, but you can take the experts' word for it – breastmilk and baby formulas offer the highest nutritional value in the right balance until they are a year old – even after introducing them to first foods. By adhering to the research-based recommendations, you give your baby the best start to enjoying a healthy life.
Some babies start to wean themselves off breast milk once you introduce them to first foods, between six and twelve months. If this happens, do not substitute with cow's milk; instead, give your baby iron-fortified formula in a bottle or sippy cup.
In this article, we will take a closer look at the composition of cow’s milk, baby formula and breast milk, and how to best introduce your baby to cow’s milk. And the pros and cons of cow’s milk for babies.
Why Can’t Babies be Introduced to Cow’s Milk After Six Months?
All mammals produce the perfect nutritional balance in the mother’s milk. This is nature’s way of ensuring the baby receives the best start in life. The mammary glands of cows, similar to humans, also produce colostrum (the first creamy substance) immediately upon giving birth. This wonder food contains high antibodies to fight infections and promote healthy growth in newborns in the animal and human species.
But this is where the similarities end, and the health risks increase significantly if a baby is immediately introduced to cow’s milk when they start on first foods after six months.
At twelve months, your baby should be eating three well-balanced meals and snacks in addition to breast milk or baby formula. Their digestive and muscular systems, major organs and metabolic processes will be more developed and effective at digesting and thriving on cow’s milk at this stage of their development.
Nutritional needs of a newborn human baby versus a calf
Let’s consider for a moment that the average weight of a healthy newborn human baby ranges anywhere from 2.2 to 4.5 Kg. A newborn calf weighs between 27 and 45 Kg. Calves need to stand on their little legs and nurse within the first hour after birth and are weaned when they are 6 to 7 months old.
This places a calf’s nutritional needs at a different level to human babies. Cow's milk has to have the perfect balance of nutrients to accommodate the calf's mass and rapid development during the first seven months.
The composition of cow’s milk compared to breast milk.
Protein: Cow's milk contains 80 per cent casein, the protein that gives milk its colour. The casein content is six to seven times the amount found in breast milk. A baby's digestive system cannot digest the hard curd-like substance contained in casein.
Iron: The iron in cow’s milk doesn’t meet a 6- to 12-month-old baby’s needs. Though babies are born with a small store of iron supply from the womb. They obtain a little extra iron from breast milk, but the iron levels in both breast and cow's milk are relatively low.
The primary difference is that the protein in cow's milk inhibits the absorption of iron. The result being that only 10 percent of iron is absorbed from cow's milk compared to 50 per cent from breast milk. First foods after the sixth month need to include iron-fortified cereal. However breast milk or baby formula should still provide most of the baby's nutritional needs.
Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Cow’s milk contains no Vitamin C. An antioxidant essential for boosting your baby's immune system and aids in iron absorption. This vitamin is critical for promoting collagen formation, a protein that helps maintain connective tissue in the skin. Vitamin C also supports many metabolic functions for healthy development during the baby’s formative years in the first twelve months.
Fatty Acids: During this critical developmental phase in your baby’s life, cow’s milk doesn't have the right composition. Although it contains the same amount of fat as breast milk, cow’s milk has a lower level of unsaturated fatty acids. It also lacks some critical long-chain unsaturated fatty acids needed for the proper development and functioning of the baby’s brain, nervous system, and tissues during their first year.
Essential Vitamins and Minerals: Cow’s milk supplies inadequate amounts of vitamins and minerals such as zinc, niacin (a B vitamin), selenium, and vitamin E. But on the other hand, cow's milk contains much higher amounts of trace minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and phosphorous than breast milk.
While it may sound beneficial, too much of any one of these minerals can cause ‘kidney stress’ in a baby younger than 12 months old. Although the calcium in breast milk is less than in cow’s milk, it is absorbed easier into the baby’s body than cow’s milk.
Vitamin D: Adequate amounts of this vitamin is essential to conserve and re-use calcium in the body for bone health and a range of other functions. A breastfed baby receives this vitamin from his mother during the first few months after birth. Provided she continues taking extra vitamin D supplements. (Trusted Source).
Direct sunlight on the skin makes vitamin D. However, babies' first foods at six months should include food that contains Vitamin D as babies require protection from direct sunlight. Once you introduce you baby to cow's milk after twelve months, they will get sufficient amounts of this vitamin to maintain optimal bone health.
The Smart Way to Introduce Your Baby to Cow’s Milk
Your baby's first birthday serves as another significant milestone to start enjoying much the same food the family eats. The quality and quantity of food and drinks are essential from six to twenty-four months. This period marks a phase of rapid growth and brain development.
- The general rule to introduce your baby to cows milk, is to start slowly. As should be done when you introduce of any new foods.
- Firstly, you must choose suitable milk. Purchase pasteurized whole milk with at least 3.25% fat content, homogenized and enriched with vitamin D.
- Boil and cool the milk that can initially be mixed with breast milk or baby formula.
- The experts recommend a ratio of 1:3 (one part cow's milk to three parts breast/formula milk). Slowly increase it to half/half until whole cow's milk replaces one daily milk feed.
- Alternatively, you can add boiled and cooled milk to existing foods like an omelette or mashed potatoes.
- It allows you to observe if your baby can digest the cow’s milk or if they experience an allergic reaction.
- Try to offer a regular or sippy cup to wean your baby off the bottle. They help regulate the amount of milk they drink per day. Drinking from a cup helps with healthy bone, cheek, and jaw development.
- Give a cup of milk at least one hour before a meal. This prevents interference with your little one’s appetite while he gets all the nutritional value from the milk.
- The experts recommend initially giving your baby about 300ml of whole cow’s milk per day. Gradually increase the amount to a maximum of 750 ml per day to provide all the nutrients that your baby needs for healthy development.
- It is not advisable that you suddenly stop breastfeeding as it can result in swollen, painful breasts.
- Doctors recommend weaning your baby off breast milk over a few weeks. Your baby will adjust to the new milk and your body to the reduced feeds.
- If your baby still clings to the breast, that’s perfectly fine. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding for the first two years. Continue breastfeeding and give your baby a variety of foods that supply all the required nutrients (including iron and vitamin D).
Allergic Reactions to Cow’s Milk
Some babies may be allergic to cow’s milk. Watch out if your baby has difficulty breathing, starts to vomit or develops hives within a few hours after being introduced to cow’s milk.
Where a baby presents more than one symptom, e.g. vomiting and diarrhea or hives combined. Dr. Aven Poynter, president of the BC Pediatric Society, advises parents to call their emergency number or take their baby to the emergency unit at the nearest hospital.
Alternatives to Cow’s Milk
It's essential to discuss cow's milk alternatives with your baby's paediatrician, doctor, or a dietician. Most of the common plant-based options, such as rice, almond, soy, and oat milk, offer an inadequate supply of protein and other nutrients essential for a baby’s healthy growth and development.
Some parents switch to whole pasteurized goat’s milk. But you need to ensure that it also has added vitamin D and folic acid. Dr. Aven Poynter recommends switching to a hydrolyzed formula. A process where the milk protein (casein) has been broken down completely. Your baby's system will not regard the milk as a threat in this altered state.
However, unless the mother's milk supply is drying up, it's wise to continue breastfeeding for as long as possible until your baby turns two years old.
The Nutritional Composition of Baby Formula
Most infant formulas are made from cow’s milk that has been fortified to imitate breast milk. To provide your baby’s nutritional needs as best as possible. Countries like Australia have strict standards that brands must adhere to. However, the formula is not guaranteed to work precisely like breast milk in every baby’s body.
The following nutrients are commonly added to baby formula:
- Carbohydrates (in the form of milk sugar or ‘lactose.’)
- Minerals such as zinc and calcium
- Essential vitamins such as A, C, D, E, and ‘B' vitamins
Some of the more expensive formulas have added essential fatty acids and nucleotides (bio-chemicals in breast milk). These support a wide variety of biological processes to promote healthy growth.
Many have added prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that may prevent conditions such as eczema in babies. Prebiotics feed and promote the growth of the good bacteria already present in the gut (Trusted Source).
A more expensive brand with all the additives doesn’t guarantee that it will agree with your baby’s system. Also, just because hospitals favour a particular brand doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best for your baby’s unique needs.
The reason for delaying the introduction to cow's milk is based on extensive research. Babies introduced to cow's milk too early may become susceptible to conditions such as diabetes, iron deficiency, and allergies (Trusted Source).
All mammals provide the perfect balance of nutrients for their babies. Starting with the powerful immune-boosting ‘first milk’ colostrum immediately after birth. However, each baby has unique nutritional requirements according to its mass and growth rate.
You only get one chance at providing the right amount of nutrition, in the perfect balance for your baby to develop strong bones. Calcium and vitamin D in cow's milk are essential for building bone health and preventing a debilitating disease called Rickets.
If you introduce your baby to cow’s milk before they turn one years old, it can cause more harm. This may induce a mineral (Calcium) and vitamin deficiency, leading to a reversal of the health you're trying to build.
While breast milk remains nature's superfood. It is wise to discuss your baby’s feeding routine and any feeding milestone changes you wish to make with your baby’s paediatrician or a registered dietician.