Cow's milk for babies: Risks and considerations - Evidence Based Babie
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Cow’s milk for babies: Risks and considerations

Whether you’re a breastfeeding mother or a formula feeding mother, you’ve probably heard about the recommendation of not switching your baby over to cow’s milk in the first year. Cow’s milk is quite normalized in today’s world, so you may be wondering why it’s not recommended for babies.

The simple answer is cow’s milk is meant for calves, not humans. Therefore, the composition will not be suited for human babies. A human baby and a calves’ needs are completely different.

Cow’s milk does not offer your baby the nutrients they need in the first year of life. That’s why they invented formula as an alternative, where they formulated cow’s milk to be closer in nutritional value to breastmilk so babies can receive the needed nutrients. Without it being formulated, it won’t meet your baby’s nutritional needs.

The risks of giving cow’s milk to human babies under the age of 1 year old

– It contains too much sodium, potassium and protein

Cow’s milk contains much higher amounts of sodium, potassium and protein than what a human baby need. Cow’s milk contains about three times as much sodium and potassium, four times as much calcium and six times as much phosphorus as human milk.

These high amounts of protein and minerals can put stress on a baby’s immature kidneys and cause severe illness, especially during times of fever and illness.

To give you an idea of the protein ratio differences, protein provides about 7% of the calories in human milk and 20% of the calories in cow’s milk. That’s quite a big difference. Although the amounts of whey protein are very similar, cow’s milk contains six to seven times as much casein then human milk. Casein is much more difficult for babies to digest, causing digestive issues for the baby.

Cow’s milk can also cause iron-deficiency anemia in some babies, since cow’s milk protein irritates the lining of the stomach and intestine, leading to loss of blood in the stools.

– Lack of vitamins and minerals needed for human babies

Cow’s milk lacks the correct amounts of iron, zinc, niacin vitamin C and E and other nutrients that human babies need. 

Cow’s milk also doesn’t contain the healthiest types of fat for growing babies either.

– Increased risk of milk protein allergy

Early exposure to cow’s milk proteins has been found to increase the risk of developing an allergy to milk proteins.

– Increased risk of type 1 diabetes mellitus

An association between early exposure to cow’s milk proteins and risk for type 1 diabetes mellitus has been reported in some studies. Exposure to cow’s milk proteins elicits antibody formation to insulin in some children.

Because of this possible association, breastfeeding and avoidance of cow’s milk and products containing intact cow’s milk protein during the first year of life are strongly encouraged in families with a strong history of insulin dependent diabetes mellitus.

What about other dairy products

Moderate amounts of dairy products such as yogurt and cheese can be given to babies from the age of 6 months old. The protein in cow’s milk is much stronger and more concentrated in cow’s milk than in other dairy products.

What to feed a baby in case of an emergency

Life happens and sometimes emergencies call for unwanted but needed actions. It’s best to know what your different options are.

– Breastfeed

Now I know, it may not be your first choice, or it may not even be possible for you. But if it is a possibility to breastfeed, then do so. Relactation is very possible if you work with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). If finances are an issue, speak to a local La Leche League International Leader for guidance. Even if you can only supply a certain amount of breastmilk, it’s better than nothing at all.

– Human donor milk

Not everyone can breastfeed or have the means to find support to relactate. After feeding your baby your own breastmilk, donor breast milk will be the next best option.

There are a few options, such as local hospitals, human milk banks or groups such as Human Milk For Human Babies in your local area. You may not be able to receive the full amount needed, but it’s still better than nothing at all.

– Mix feeding

Mix feeding is when you feed your baby both breastmilk and formula. This is a really great option for those who may not be able to produce the full breastmilk supply needed for their baby. By giving half breastmilk, it also reduces the price of full formula feeding.

– Formula feed

The next best thing is formula feeding. Although most formulas are technically cow’s milk, it has been formulated to better suit the needs of a human baby. Many babies thrive on formula feeding.

– In severe emergencies cow’s milk can be given temporarily

This should only be done under the guidance of a medical professional, only when it’s a life-or-death emergency situation and only temporarily.

It’s clear that cow’s milk is not ideal for babies under the age of 6 months old, and it carries a lot of risks for your baby’s health. The only milk suitable for a baby under the age of 1 year of age is breastmilk or infant formula.

Additional information and resources:

Whole cow’s milk in infancy


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Online information will never be a substitute for individual support by a qualified healthcare professional.

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