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  • Writer's pictureChardá Bell, IBCLC, CBE, CD

Cow's Milk Alternatives for Your Baby...

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

While the formula shortage is still lingering, many parents having trouble finding formula have asked about switching their baby to regular ol’ milk but it's safest for your baby to keep cow's milk away until 12 months and older. People want to know if this rule can be bent or broken. Here’s what we do know, cow’s milk before 12 months puts a child at risk for intestinal bleeding due to too many proteins and minerals for your baby's kidneys to handle and it doesn't have the right amount of nutrients for the under 12 month crowd. With this knowledge, use your better judgment and talk with your pediatrician about whether or not cow’s milk is appropriate for your baby’s age and health status.

If you want to switch from formula to something else, but are not feeling cow's milk or dairy you may want to look into milk alternatives with your pediatrician. This could be due to a cow's milk protein sensitivity or true allergy, preferred taste, religious or other health concerns.

Cow's milk alternatives often contain less protein and less calories in comparison to cow's milk. Most are fortified with vitamin D and calcium. It is important to check labels since protein and vitamin content may differ among brands.

Cow's milk alternatives to ask your pediatrician about:

  • Pea

  • Oat

  • Almond Cashew Blend

  • Organic Soy

AVOID raw or unpasteurized milk as it can be life threatening due to the germs and harmful bacteria in those milks.

Example to ask your pediatrician: "Would it be a safe time to start cow's milk or a plant based milk for my baby?"

If your pediatrician recommends, your baby stay on formula until 12 months ask for their recommendation on a non-cow's milk protein-based formula. If they give you the green light for milks other than human milk, here are a few options to discuss:

Almond and/or cashew milk, a blend of these two that has 10 grams of protein, 450 mg of calcium, and 15 mcg of vitamin D seems to be a good choice to ask pediatrician about. Keeping in mind almond milk alone tends to be lower in calories, around 35 calories per cup of unsweetened almond milk. It's the cashew that aids in the increased caloric and fat content.

Oat Milk has a higher carbohydrate content, high in calcium and vitamin D when fortified. This option is lower in protein—around 2 grams—but higher in calcium, around 460 mg, so take note when shopping. Be sure to have your baby on protein-rich foods throughout the day to account for the lapse in protein. Pea milks are specifically formulated to have fiber, protein, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids to help with nutrition. Pea protein milk blends are made from yellow split-peas to achieve a look akin to cow’s milk and have some sort of oil in it, plus thickeners, flavor, and nutrients, if you purchase a fortified version.

Soy Milk is commonly recommended for transitioning to non-cow's milk, but it is now used with a bit more discretion by parents, due to the known effects of it's estrogen like compounds and the cause for concern over its long term high usage. Water will always be the first ingredient in soy milk. The second and preferably only other ingredient will be organic or non-GMO soybeans. Rice Milks & Coconut Milks are not as sufficient in nutrients and minerals for growth and development of a young child, not highly recommended as the primary source of milk. Consult with your pediatrician AND a nutritionist if you are considering this as a stand alone option.

The transition to alternative milk is done by mixing some of the milk or milk alternative with breastmilk or formula and slowly increase the amount [of milk] over the course of several days until there is no formula or breastmilk remaining. After transitioning, keeping in mind their solid food intake as well, the expected intake amount of milk or milk alternative for a child 12 - 24 months is about 16 to 24 ounces per day, this is according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. If you choose a milk alternative, here are a few points to remember:

  • Milk alternatives should not be given before 12 months, (11+ months with pediatrician consent; only for healthily growing, no allergies or other concerns, happily taking solids regularly without trouble and a mature digestive system)

  • Fortified soy beverages are the only milk alternative that help meet a child’s recommended dairy needs without close watch of intake of other foods

  • Choose one that is unflavored and unsweetened.

  • Choose one that is fortified with vitamin D and calcium. Check labels since nutrient content can vary between brands.

  • ALWAYS talk with your pediatrician about the milk alternative you are using.

Remember that if a baby is drinking breastmilk of a dairy drinker or baby is on formula, they were already exposed to dairy.

Food and dietary changes can bring about bowel changes. For constipation try Dr. Sears techniques for infant/child stool softening The AAP recommends breastmilk for up to 6 months and WHO recommends breastmilk for up to 12 months. I recommend you breastfeed or provide breastmilk for as long as you and your baby want and are comfortable, there is no limit or cutoff to a breastfeeding journey. Feeding human milk longer than 12 months is completely normal and good for both baby and milk giver!

If you are considering alternative milks due to ending your lactation journey sooner than you would have liked and are struggling to use or find formula, Relactation is a viable solution.

Read my blog on this for more in depth coverage. You CAN start making milk again if you feel that is the next step for you in this formula crisis or other reason, and you are committed to the process. - is another great source for relactation information

Milk sharing is also great possibility for parents seeking alternative milk amid the shortage.

Learn more here:

Evidence Based Sources:

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