Compared to human milk or formula, cow’s milk is nutritionally incomplete, which means that it does not provide all the nutrients babies need to thrive, and the digestive systems of babies may not well tolerate cow milk protein in large quantities.1 2 3 For these reasons, refrain from serving cow’s milk as a beverage until after a baby’s first birthday. Incorporating small amounts of cow milk as an ingredient in solid food (such as in oatmeal) however is fine.
When can babies have cow's milk?
Cow’s milk (or other milks from certain other hooved animals called ruminants) may be introduced in small amounts in food (such as warm cereal cooked with milk) as early as 6 months of age, but it is best to wait until 12 months of age to offer milk as a beverage. Most pediatric organizations recommend waiting until a baby’s first birthday to introduce cow’s milk as a beverage because the digestive systems of babies may not well tolerate cow milk protein in large quantities.4 Compared to human milk or formula, cow’s milk is nutritionally incomplete, which means that it does not provide all the nutrients babies need to thrive.5 6
For detailed information on milk alternatives, see our Milk FAQs.
Origins & uses of milk
There are thousands of mammal species on our planet (including humans!), all of which produce milk to feed their young. Only a handful of these species have been domesticated and their milk used as a regular part of the human diet, the most common of which is the cow. Human consumption of cow milk is an ancient practice, but more recently, industrialization has affected the dairy industry both positively—making milk more widely and cheaply available—and negatively in the diversity and lifestyle of dairy cattle, which are commonly kept more confined than their ancestors were.
Milk is the basis for a multitude of other common foods. Fresh milk will naturally separate, the thick, fatty cream rising to the top. That cream can be skimmed off and used on its own, or it can be churned into butter. The introduction of certain forms of bacteria into milk creates yogurt, and the separation of milk into curds and whey is the first step in making cheese. This versatility has led to a global inventiveness when it comes to milk as an ingredient, from the Indian khoa (a form of evaporated milk often used in desserts) to the baked milk popular in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
★Tip: Recommendations for dairy intake for 12 months and up are considered in total servings of dairy products in a day, not just from liquid milk alone. This includes servings of yogurt and cheeses, but excludes butter and ghee.7 In general, a cup of plain yogurt, a 1-ounce slice of cheese, and 1 cup of cow’s milk are each considered as one dairy serving. For more information on milk, check out our Milk FAQs.
s milk healthy for babies?
Yes, when served in food. Never serve cow’s milk as a beverage to babies younger than 11 or 12 months of age, as it could displace the necessary nutrition from human milk or formula, put baby at an increased risk of iron deficiency anemia, and tax baby’s digestive system, which may also contribute to anemia.8 9 10 11
In addition to being an excellent source of protein to support growth and muscles and fat to fuel the brain, milk provides a plethora of vitamins and minerals. It packs a punch of vitamin D (when fortified) and calcium for strong bones, choline to bolster brain health, and vitamin A to nourish vision and the immune system.12 13 14 It contains most B vitamins, particularly significant amounts of vitamins B6 and B12, which help support the nervous system and a healthy metabolism.15 16 Milk also touts significant amounts of zinc, in addition to selenium, phosphorous, and potassium and, in some cases, iodine.17 18
This entry focuses on milk from cows, but goats, sheep, buffalo, yaks, and camels also produce milk that is commonly consumed by humans. Like cow’s milk, the nutritional content and quality of milk from these animals can vary with their diet and upbringing. In general, milk from these animals is nutritionally dense with similarities to cow’s milk, and some differences, of course. For example, goat, sheep, and buffalo milks are higher in calories, fat, protein, and calcium than cow’s milk. Camel milk is slightly lower in calories, but similar to cow’s milk in fat, protein, and calcium content. Interestingly, camel milk is unique as it contains a higher proportion of monounsaturated fats (a type of heart-healthy fat) and less saturated fat than that of cows.19 20 As with cow’s milk, these milks should not be introduced until after baby’s first birthday. To compare the nutritional content of various animal and plant-based milks, see our Milk FAQs.
Many are concerned with the environmental impact and/or the use of pesticides, chemicals, or antibiotics in dairy production. From a nutrition perspective, there are differences in pasture-raised animals versus conventional. For example, dairy products made with milk from pasture-raised cows has been shown to be higher in omega 3 fats and other nutrients than from cows raised on grain.21 Non-organic dairy products may contain more pesticide residues (including DDT, an endocrine-disrupting chemical) that may adversely affect a child’s physical, mental, and behavioral health.22 23 While organic products can help minimize a baby’s exposure, they also can be impracticable due to availability, price, and other reasons. Bottom line: milk delivers plenty of nutrients to nourish a growing baby, organic or not, and if you like, learn more about where and how the milk was produced. Keep doing the best you can with the resources you have, and if food security is a concern for you, online resources such as FindHelp and Feeding America can help identify food aid resources near you.
★Tip: Cow’s milk purchased from a grocery store is often fortified with vitamin D as, on its own, milk may provide some vitamin D, but not a significant amount. When shopping for cow’s milk, opt for a vitamin-D fortified version to ensure you are providing enough of this important nutrient that is available in only a few foods.
Can babies drink raw milk?
No. Raw milk can harbor pathogenic bacteria and other potential contaminants that can increase the risk of foodborne illnesses, which can be fatal to babies, whose immune systems are still developing.24 25 Pasteurization—the process of heating a food to a certain temperature to kill bacteria—is fundamental to reducing the risk of foodborne illness and thus making food safer to eat.26 For these reasons and more, many medical organizations recommend pasteurized milk for human consumption.27
Is milk a choking hazard for babies?
No. Milk is not a common choking hazard, though infants and children can aspirate liquid. As always, make sure you create a safe eating environment, stay within an arm’s reach of baby during meals, and check out our age-appropriate serving suggestions.
Is milk a common allergen?
Yes. Cow’s milk is a common food allergen in young children, accounting for about one-fifth of all childhood food allergies.28 Keep in mind that dairy products from other ruminants such as sheep, goat, and buffalo may provoke similar allergic reactions to cow’s milk dairy products.29 That said, there’s good news: milk allergy often disappears with time. Research shows that the majority of children with cow’s milk allergy will outgrow it by age 6 and many babies with milder symptoms of milk protein allergy (which can show up as painless blood in stool) are able to successfully reintroduce cow’s milk as early as their first birthday, with the guidance of their appropriate pediatric health professionals.30 31 Even among those children who are not yet able to drink cow’s milk, many are able to tolerate milk that has been fully baked into a cake or muffin.
Milk is a common cause of food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome, also known as FPIES. FPIES is a delayed allergy to food protein which causes the sudden onset of repetitive vomiting and diarrhea to begin a few hours after ingestion. Left untreated, the reaction can result in significant dehydration. When milk is in the diet regularly, FPIES can present as reflux, weight loss, and failure to thrive. Symptoms generally improve with elimination of milk from the baby’s diet. Thankfully, like other forms of milk allergy, FPIES which presents early in life is generally outgrown by the child has reached 3-5 years of age.32
Lactose intolerance, which is when the body has a hard time processing lactose, the sugar that is naturally present in milk, can sometimes be mistaken for an allergy as it can result in bloating, gas, diarrhea, nausea, and other discomfort. The good news is that lactose intolerance is uncommon in babies, toddlers, and younger children overall; however, intolerance tends to become more prevalent as babies grow older and may affect up to 70% of the world’s population.33 Be sure to connect with an appropriate pediatric health care professional for any questions about lactose intolerance and know there are many lactose-free dairy foods available.
If you suspect your baby may be allergic to dairy products, consult an allergist before introducing milk. Based on your baby’s risk factors and history, your allergist may recommend allergy testing, or may instead advise milk introduction under medical supervision in the office. If the risk is low, you may be advised to go ahead and introduce milk in the home setting. As with all common allergens, start by serving a scant quantity on its own for the first few servings, and if there is no adverse reaction, gradually increase the quantity over future servings.
Recommended Guide: Introducing Allergens to Babies
What is the environmental impact of consuming milk?
Cow’s milk is a greenhouse gas-intensive food (due to the large scale of the feed needed to raise the cows, the waste the cows produce, and transportation of the milk itself).34 That said, any milk has a carbon footprint and an impact on the environment, so there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to sourcing or consuming. If the carbon footprint of cow’s milk concerns you, consider buying from local dairies and/or reducing milk consumption.
How do you serve milk to babies with baby-led weaning?
Every baby develops on their own timeline, and the suggestions on how to cut or prepare particular foods are generalizations for a broad audience. Your child is an individual and may have needs or considerations beyond generally accepted practices. In determining the recommendations for size and shape of foods, we use the best available scientific information regarding gross, fine, and oral motor development to minimize choking risk. The preparation suggestions we offer are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for child-specific, one-on-one advice from your pediatric medical or health professional or provider. It is impossible to fully eliminate all risk of a baby or child choking on any liquid, puree, or food. We advise you to follow all safety protocols we suggest to create a safe eating environment and to make educated choices for your child regarding their specific needs. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read or seen here.
6 to 11 months old: Stick to human milk or formula as baby’s main source of fluids, as the introduction of cow’s milk as a drink is discouraged at this age.35 A little bit of cow’s milk mixed into foods is fine as long as it doesn’t replace human milk or formula.
11 to 12 months old: At this age it is okay to offer small sips of whole cow’s milk (no more than 1-2 ounces) in an open cup to practice feeding skills and accustom baby’s palate to the new taste of cow’s milk. That said, it is also completely fine to not introduce cow’s milk at this age and continue human milk or formula.
12 to 24 months old: Limit milk to no more than 16 ounces total per day or 2 servings total of dairy products daily so that milk doesn’t displace valuable nutrients such as iron from solids.36 Opt for whole cow’s milk and whole milk dairy products to provide enough fats and calories for healthy growth and development. If still consuming breast milk, children may not need as many servings of dairy since human milk is also a good source of calcium in the diet.
24 to 36 months old: Toddlers can have up to 2-2.5 servings of dairy per day.37 You may hear recommendations to switch to a lower fat milk, but not all kids need low-fat milk, so be sure to speak with your pediatric health professional for more guidance.
Check out our FAQ here for help with developing baby’s cup drinking skills.
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