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Introducing Cow's Milk

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 19 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Breast Milk Formula Cow's Milk Weaning

Parents of babies often wonder about the best time to introduce cow's milk into their child's diet. Expert recommendations vary from 9-12 months, with most leaning towards the one year mark, but virtually all child nutritionists agree that giving cow's milk to a child under nine months of age would be unwise. Babies of that age need more iron than what cow's milk offers, so breast milk or formula should be the baby's main beverage for the first year of life.

Food Sources

From about seven or eight months, it is safe for babies to consume cow's milk in yogurt, custard, or cheese. As long as your baby shows no signs of gastrointestinal distress after consuming milk products, you can continue to include them as part of the diet. These products are a good source of calcium, as well as vitamin D.

Reasons to Wait

Although it can be tempting to switch your baby to cow's milk early rather than continuing to breastfeed or purchase formula, there are a number of reasons to wait until the baby reaches one year.
  • Early introduction of cow's milk has been shown to increase the chances that the baby will develop diabetes later in life, especially if there is already a family history of the disease.
  • Cow's milk isn't a good source of iron, so until the baby is eating a variety of iron rich foods, the consumption of cow's milk puts the baby at risk for anemia.
  • Allergies and eczema are more prevalent in children switched to cow's milk before their first birthday.
  • Cow's milk isn't as nutrient rich as formula (and is certainly lacking compared to breast milk), so to ensure that your baby has the best nutritional start, wait until 12 months before you wean to cow's milk.

How to Make the Switch

The taste of cow's milk is going to be new for your baby, so it may take a little getting used to. Some parents choose to alternate cups or bottles of cow's milk and formula until the baby is willing to drink the cow's milk as easily as the formula. Others choose to mix the milk and the formula together to allow the baby to gradually adjust to the taste. This method seems to work well, especially when the first few mixtures are mostly formula and over the course of several days or weeks, the percentages switch until the baby is happily drinking exclusively cow's milk. Some babies go along with change better than others - if your baby seems resistant, take your time making the transition.

What to Buy

Babies need the extra fat contained in whole milk for proper brain, eye, and nervous system development until their second birthday. It is not advisable to serve low fat or skimmed milk to babies. Start with whole milk and plan to serve that for the next year or so. At that point you can check with your pediatrician for recommendations about switching to milk with a lower fat content.

The high cost of formula can be a bit burdensome on the family budget, but the nutritional differences between formula or breast milk and cow's milk are considerable. When your baby is ready, at about a year, the switch should be fairly easy. Until then, remember that the time on breast milk or formula is making a substantial contribution to your baby's health - both now and in the future.

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