When Can Babies Have Cow's Milk?

Medical experts don't recommend giving your baby cow's milk before they turn 1 unless you're in a pinch. Here's the latest guidance for parents during the formula shortage.

Baby Drinking Bottle Milk Foot in Air
Photo: DinoPhoto/Shutterstock

For the past few weeks, parents have faced anxiety-provoking formula shortages across the country. Some have found empty grocery store shelves, while others contend with insane price hikes and formula buying limits. The White House announced a three-step plan to reduce the burden of the shortage, but officials aren't sure when consumers will feel the effects.

In the meantime, you might be wondering, "Is it safe to feed my baby cow's milk?" As it turns out, experts say that dairy-based milks should be off-limits until your baby turns 1 year old. Before that, infants should be fed breast milk or iron-fortified formula, along with "age-appropriate solid foods and juices," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

That said, the organization recognizes that parents are in a pinch right now, and they've tweaked their guidance to reflect the baby formula shortage. Here's their latest stance: "During the current baby formula shortage, it may be OK for some babies over 6 months of age to have cow's milk for a short period of time if no formula is available." The organization stresses it's "not ideal" to give your baby cow's milk, but it's better than diluting formula or making homemade formula. Here's what parents need to know.

Can Babies Have Cow's Milk?

Are you considering giving your baby cow's milk? Unless there's no other alternative available, you might want to think again. Experts say that parents should wait until their baby turns 1 year old to consume dairy milk—and the AAP is on the same page.

Young babies can't properly digest cow's milk because their kidneys aren't mature enough. The high concentration of proteins and minerals can cause symptoms like diarrhea, fever, and "micro-bleeds" in the digestive tract. Studies have also linked cow's milk to severe dehydration in little ones.

In addition, cow's milk lacks proper nutrition for babies, who need a specific balanced diet. For example, it doesn't contain enough vitamin E, essential fatty acids, or iron. "It may even cause iron-deficiency anemia in some babies, since cow's milk protein can irritate the lining of the stomach and intestine, leading to loss of blood in the stools," says the AAP.

Aside from cow's milk, other dairy-based options (such as goat's milk) should also be avoided until your baby turns 1 year old.

What If I Can't Find Formula?

Breast milk or iron-fortified formula is best for babies. If you're having trouble locating formula during the shortage, bring up your concerns with your pediatrician, who might point you in the right direction. You can also search for your formula at grocery stories, pharmacies, local shops, online retailers, and the manufacturers website. Swapping formula brands is another option, as long as you get the green light from your pediatrician.

If you're really having trouble securing formula, the AAP says you can give your baby whole cow's milk if they're over 6 months old—but only for a brief period of time. "This is not ideal and should not become routine, but is a better option than diluting formula or making homemade formula," says the AAP. (Homemade baby formula comes with its own risks, such as nutritional imbalances and the possibility of contamination). Avoid giving cow's milk to babies needing speciality products for food intolerances or digestive issues.

Because the AAP doesn't usually advise giving cow's milk to infants, they don't have a specific amount to recommend. That said, children over 1 year old shouldn't consume more than 24 ounces per day.

If you're temporarily feeding your baby cow's milk, always make sure they're getting enough iron to prevent anemia. "Be sure to include plenty of iron-containing solid foods in their diet while you are using whole cow's milk," says the AAP. "You may also talk with your pediatrician about giving your baby an iron supplement."

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