When Can Babies Have Cow's Milk?


Note: This blog is not medical advice and is for informational purposes only. For any specific recommendations or concerns, please refer to your child’s healthcare provider.

Milk does the body good, as they say. A tasty, filling beverage that’s protein-rich and full of nutrients, it’s also a fan favorite for many kids. So, when is it appropriate to start offering your little one cow’s milk?

Do Babies and Kids Need Milk? 

However beloved, cow’s milk is not a requirement for children. As registered dietitian Nicole Lattanzio, RD, CSP, IBCLC explains, “What’s important are the nutrients it can provide—water, fat, protein, calcium, vitamin D, etc.” And while cow’s milk can conveniently provide these, “your little one can meet needs through food alone with a strategic nutrition plan that includes rich sources.”

For Babies Under 1 Year Old

For babies under one, breast milk or formula is recommended. As Lattanzio tells us, “Breast milk and formula provide balanced macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) that support growth and development.” Despite their differences, these things both also provide balanced vitamins and minerals that support the development of infants. So why not cow’s milk instead? The balance of nutrients of cow’s milk is very different compared to breast milk and formula, making it non-optimal for babies. “When comparing cow’s milk,” she says, “We see that cow’s milk has slightly lower calories, more protein, and lower fat.”

For When They’re Ready to Introduce Cow’s Milk

Experts, including the CDC, recommend introducing cow’s milk after 12 months. Lattanzio also recommends waiting until your baby is drinking around 24 ounces or less of breast milk or formula—and waiting for parents to be ready to make the transition. There are many ways to approach the transition. “Oftentimes, offering a small amount of cow’s milk in a cup mixed with their breast milk/formula can ease them into the taste,” Lattanzio recommends. “As they accept it, increase the amount of cow’s milk and decrease the amount of breast milk/formula.” When fully transitioned to cow’s milk, it’s recommended to provide no more than 3 cups daily (24 ounces). "I also encourage families to begin to offer milk as a beverage at meals rather than a 'feeding' like with breast milk/formula," says Lattanzio.

What Kind of Milk Is Best for Kids?

Whole milk is often the top-recommended milk. As Lattanzio explains, “Whole milk is great as it’s calorie-dense, a great protein source, and rich in calcium/phosphorus.” There are other options—milks that provide a similar nutrient breakdown, including fortified soy milk and fortified pea milk. Lattanzio generally discourages switching to nut milks, as they tend to be low in calories and protein (and they may not be sources of complete protein). Be sure to read the nutrition facts and the ingredient list carefully when picking a plant-based alternative to be sure that it contains comparable nutritional quality to cow’s milk.

Risks of Introducing Cow’s Milk Too Early

Offering cow’s milk in place of breast milk or formula before the age of one can harm the kidneys and growth. Cow’s milk is high in protein, but lower in fat than breast milk or formula. It also provides large amounts of minerals, specifically calcium and phosphorus. “While this may sound like it would be a good thing for babies,” Lattanzio says, it is not. “The ratio of calcium and phosphorus is very important for bone development—breast milk provides the perfect ratio and formula is developed to mirror this as well.”

Signs of Milk Intolerance

The most common signs of intolerance are digestive issues, including constipation, diarrhea, or stomach aches. It can be helpful to do a gradual transition or offer less milk. If you have concerns about how your child is tolerating milk (or not), contact your pediatrician.

Like all parenting choices, whether you offer cow’s milk to your child or not, it’s up to you. Follow the recommended guidance and keep an eye out for potential intolerance issues.