Cow Milk For Babies: Right Age, Benefits And Side Effects

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Cow milk for babies is the most common alternative to breastmilk. It is a great source of nutrients that can be served independently or added to various baby foods. So if you are considering including it in your little one’s diet, then continue reading this post. Here we talk about the benefits of cow milk, including if it is safe for toddlers and infants and the right quantity to feed your baby.

In This Article

When Can Babies Have Cow Milk?

Babies can have cow milk only after they are one year or 12 months old, when their body can comfortably process different types of foods (1).

Why Can’t Babies Have Cow Milk Before The Age Of 12 Months?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies below the age of 12 months cannot digest cow milk as they can breast milk and formula (2). Cow milk also has a high concentration of protein and minerals that can strain an infant’s kidneys. The baby’s stomach and kidneys become stronger after the age of 12 months, which makes it an ideal time to introduce cow’s milk.

But why should you give cow milk to a baby anyway?

What Are The Advantages Of Giving Cow Milk To A Baby?

Cow milk is believed to be a nutrient-rich breast milk substitute and provides the following benefits to the baby (3):

  1. Benefits muscle development and overall baby growth: Cow milk is high in protein, which babies need in abundance for healthy muscle synthesis and development.

    Cow milk is high in protein and benefits muscle growth
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  1. Good for the circulatory system: Regular consumption of milk is good for maintaining blood pressure, which in turn can benefit the overall circulatory system.
  1. Helps neurodevelopment: Cow milk contains lipids called phospholipids and glycosphingolipids that play a vital role in the growth of the nerve cells. Experts state that these lipids can be helpful for healthy neonatal brain development.
  1. Keeps bones healthy: Regular consumption of cow milk helps the baby reach their recommended daily allowance of calcium.
  1. Several micronutrients help a baby’s general health: Cow milk contains a small quantity of almost all essential micronutrients and vitamins, which provides complete nourishment for babies.

Nutritional Value Per 100g Of Whole Cow Milk

NutrientUnit value per 100 gm
Natural sugars5.05g
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)0.046mg
Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin)0.169mg
Vitamin B3 (Niacin)0.089mg
Vitamin B60.036mg
Vitamin B9 (FolateiXNaturally occurring form of Vitamin B9, responsible for protein metabolism and the production of red blood cells )5µg
Vitamin A46µg
Vitamin D1.3µg
Vitamin E0.07mg
Vitamin K0.3µg

Source: United States Department of Agriculture (4)

[ Read: When Can A Baby Drink Soy Milk ]

How To Choose The Right Variation Of Cow Milk For Babies?

Give pasteurized and sterilized milk to your baby
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The cow milk you give to your baby should be:

  • Pasteurized and sterilized: Pasteurisation is when the milk is heated at a high temperature for some time, and then rapidly cooled to limit the bacteria and other microorganisms in the milk (5). Sterilization is a process that kills all the microorganisms in the milk, which makes sterilized milk the safest option for babies. You can consider pasteurized milk when sterilized milk is not available.
  • Fortified: Milk in itself contains a lot of nutrients, but added nutrients can enhance its nutritional values. Such a process is called fortification. Choose cow milk fortified with vitamins, especially vitamin D. Fortification makes it easier for a baby to attain their recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of essential nutrients.

Can You Give Skimmed Or Low Fat Cow Milk To My Baby?

No. You must always choose whole cow milk for your baby. Babies need fat at their age and skimmed (fat-free) and low-fat (1-2% fat) milk contains very little fat to meet the optimal baby nutrition requirements. Moreover, skimmed and low-fat versions of cow milk contain a high concentration of protein, potassium, sodium, and chloride, which can overload a baby’s kidneys (2) (6).

The concentration of vitamins and minerals is also less in low-fat and fat-free cow milk, which makes whole milk a better option for babies.

Your baby can have low-fat varieties of cow milk after the age of two years. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states that if a baby is overweight, has high blood pressure, or heart disease, low-fat cow milk can be given after consulting the pediatrician.

protip_icon Point to consider
If you have a family history of obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure or your baby is at risk of gaining weight, doctors may suggest giving low-fat milk to them (2).

How To Introduce Cow Milk To Babies?

Cow milk is hard to digest and should be introduced slowly, starting with small quantities in the beginning. Here is how you introduce cow milk to a baby:

  • Start with small sips every day: Your baby may not develop a liking to cow milk right away. Therefore, start with spoonfuls or small sips through a sippy or open cup. It lets the baby get used to the taste of cow milk and become familiar with it.
  • Give cow milk in a separate cup: Do not mix any other food item with cow milk the first time you give it to the baby. Pour some cow milk in a separate glass and offer it to the child: this allows the baby to know the taste of milk and lets you understand how the baby’s body reacts to it.

    Do not mix any other food item with cow milk
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  • Increase quantity slowly: If you have given the first cup of milk to the baby today, wait for a day or two before offering more. As you would with other foods, introduce cow milk in small quantities and gradually increase the quantity and the frequency.
  • Make it part of a meal or a beverage: Serve milk as an accompaniment to breakfast or evening meal. Cow milk can be a part of the baby’s daily meal plan to meet the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of nutrients it has.

    Serve milk as an accompaniment to a meal
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Cow milk could become an integral part of the baby’s diet, but there is a limit to how much the baby can have.

How Much Cow Milk Can A Baby Have?

Pediatric experts recommend no more than 32oz (946ml) of cow’s milk per day for babies. Excess milk consumption can increase the baby’s calorie intake and leave little room for other solid foods that the baby needs. If your baby demands more than the ideal quantity, you can give them alternatives such as breast milk or baby formula.

Can There Be Any Disadvantages Of Giving Cow Milk To Babies?

Cow milk can be disadvantageous to babies below the age of 12 months. It can irritate the inner lining of their stomach and intestine, causing bloody stools. Intense bleeding can cause the onset of iron-deficiency anemiaiXA condition characterized by reduced levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin in the body , which in turn can cause several issues in a baby’s health (6). To avoid that, it is best to wait until the baby is 12 months old before introducing cow milk.

Can A Baby Be Allergic To Cow Milk?

Yes. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, approximately 2% to 3% of children under three have a milk allergy. Cow milk protein allergy is the most common among toddlers and young children (7). The symptoms of cow milk allergy include skin hives, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. The baby’s face could be swollen, and the demeanor could be lethargic. Severe allergic reactions can cause anaphylaxisiXAn extreme reaction to an allergen causing breathing difficulties and loss of consciousness , a condition with serious symptoms.

Zoe, a mother, revealed that her daughter Alyssia was diagnosed with CMPA (Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy) when she was just a few months old. This diagnosis came after they noticed how severe Alyssia’s eczema had become. Zoe explains, “The doctors told us that she might grow out of it and that this could just be a temporary thing, but we have noticed that she gets the same reaction with soya products & after the last time (swelling eyes, diarrhea, eczema rash, colic & vomiting), I am very nervous to try her on any of those foods again (i).”

To avoid triggering an allergic reaction, introduce cow milk in small sips, and then gradually increase the quantity. If you suspect the baby is allergic, then stop giving milk entirely. Otherwise, slowly increase the portion of milk served.

protip_icon Things to know
Breastfed babies are at a lower risk of developing milk allergies than formula-fed babies. However, most children outgrow their allergies (7).

Can A Baby Have Cow Milk Yogurt And Cheese?

Babies can have yogurt made from cow milk after 12 months
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Yes. Your baby can have dairy products such as yogurt and cheese made from cow milk after 12 months. Ensure that the cheese or yogurt you buy is without added flavoring, sugar, and color.

Can You Continue Breastfeeding When The Baby Starts Having Cow Milk?

Yes. Medical experts recommend that you continue breastfeeding beyond the age of one year or even two years when the baby has solid foods (8). Hence, maternal lactation can be maintained without pausing or stopping breastfeeding. In addition, continuing to breastfeed while serving cow’s milk can provide additional health benefits to a baby.

Next, we answer a few commonly asked questions about cow milk for babies.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Should I boil cow milk before giving it to the baby?

Yes, especially if the milk is not sterilized. If you have purchased packaged cow milk that has been “sterilized” or has a “no boiling required” label on it, then the milk needs no boiling. Pasteurized milk is also reasonably safe to consume since it has a significantly lesser bacteria when compared to raw milk.

In any case, boil the milk if you can, before giving it to the baby, to be on the safer side.

Also, never give raw cow milk to an infant, as it can contain a host of pathogensiXMicrobes that are capable of causing diseases, including bacteria, viruses, worms, protozoa, and fungi including viruses that can adversely affect the baby’s health.

2. Can I buy organic cow milk for my baby?

Yes. You can choose organic cow milk for your baby if you have a choice, but only if it is pasteurized or sterilized.

3. Can I give cow milk formula to the baby?

Yes. Infant formula is usually made from cow milk. But if your baby has a milk allergy, then they cannot have cow milk formula either. You have to choose alternatives such as a soybean-based formula in such a case (9).

4. Cow milk vs. almond milk vs. soy milk – which is better?

Almond and soy milk are ideal alternatives for babies with milk allergy or lactose intolerance. Each variety of milk can be fortified with vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. Cow milk naturally contains several vitamins and minerals that almond and soy milk may contain after fortification.

In any case, consult your pediatrician before choosing the best alternatives to cow milk for the baby.

5. Cow milk vs. buffalo milk – which is better for babies?

Studies have found similarities between cow milk proteins and buffalo milk proteins (10). However, they may differ in their mineral and vitamin content. Buffalo milk has more magnesium and calcium when compared to cow milk, but it also has more fat (11). The low fat content of cow milk helps control the calorie intake of the baby while buffalo milk does not. Eventually, it comes down to your preference and local availability.

6. Can cow milk cause autism in babies?

No. No evidence directly suggests that cow milk consumption causes autismiX Complex disorders leading to neurological and developmental delays or a reason for the worsening of autism symptoms (12). If your baby has autism and milk allergy/lactose intolerance, then consuming milk can make the baby more irritable, thus exacerbating autism symptoms. Therefore, it is the allergy to cow milk rather than the milk itself that can aggravate the symptoms of autism.

7. Can cow milk cause constipation in babies?

Yes, but not always. Cow’s milk has been linked to constipation, but not that frequently. Some studies have found that chronic constipation due to regular cow milk consumption can be an indicator of a mild milk allergy (13). If the baby always develops constipation after consuming cow milk, then take them to the doctor.

8. Should I add sugar to cow milk for my baby?

Cow’s milk or any flavored milk with added sugar is not required for babies because they do not need the increased sugar content (14).

9. Does cow milk make babies gain weight?

According to studies, babies who consume cow’s milk as the primary source of nutrition have an increased weight than those who consume formula or breastmilk (15).

Cow milk is an ideal choice of milk that most parents opt for their babies as it is packed with energy and several vital nutrients. Cow milk for babies also helps them meet their recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of nutrients. However, it is advisable to feed cow milk only to babies aged one and above. Nevertheless, it is best to consult your baby’s pediatrician before introducing cow milk to them. You may also start with small quantities to check for allergies before including cow milk in your baby’s routine diet.

Infographic: Common Misconceptions About Cow Milk For Babies

Many parents consider cow milk an alternative to breast milk for their baby. They may believe that it has a nutritional profile similar to breast milk. However, that’s a misbelief with no scientific basis. Like this common myth about cow milk, there are several more misconceptions that you may come across. Our infographic shares some of such myths and facts to help parents stay informed.

facts about cow milk for babies (infographic)

Illustration: Momjunction Design Team

Get the high-quality PDF version of this infographic.

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Key Pointers

  • Cow milk is appropriate for children aged 12 months and above.
  • Cow milk supports muscular growth, aids in cardiovascular health, promotes neurodevelopment, and maintains bone strength.
  • Cow milk for infants should be pasteurized, sterilized, and enriched with vitamins, especially vitamin D.
  • Consult a pediatrician before introducing low-fat cow milk to children over the age of two.
cow milk for babies_illustration

Image: Dalle E/MomJunction Design Team

Personal Experience: Source


MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.

1. Infant Feeding Guide;University of Rochester Medical Center
2. Why Formula Instead of Cow’s Milk?; American Academy of Pediatrics(2021)
3. A Haug, A T Hostmark, O M Harstad; Bovine milk in human nutrition – a review;Lipids Health Dis.(2007)
4. Milk, whole, 3.25% milkfat, with added vitamin D; USDA
5. K Peck; What is pasteurization and how does it work?;UNC Biology Pen Pal Program(2013)
6. Why Formula Instead of Cow’s Milk? ; Healthy children.
7. Milk Allergy in Infants; Rady Children’s Specialists of San Diego
8. Breastfeeding; World Health Organization
9. J Bhatia, F Greer; Use of Soy Protein-Based Formulas in Infant Feeding;American Academy of Pediatrics(2008)
10. W J Sheehan, W Phipatanakul; Tolerance to Water Buffalo Milk in a Child with Cow Milk Allergy ;Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol(2009)
11. D B Kapadia, D B Prajapati,; Comparison of Surti goat milk with cow and buffalo milk for gross composition, nitrogen distribution, and selected minerals content;Vet World(2016)
12. S M Bauset,I Zazpe,; Evidence of the gluten free and casein free diet in autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): a systematic review
13. S M Dehghani, B Ahmadpour,; The Role of Cow’s Milk Allergy in Pediatric Chronic Constipation: A Randomized Clinical Trial;Iran J Pediatr.(2012)
14. Cow’s Milk and Milk Alternatives; CDC
15. Babies fed cow’s milk too early are more likely to become overweight; Bristol Health Partners

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