Why can’t babies have cow milk before they are 1 year old?

As new parents, we’re told not give babies cow milk before the age of one and only offer breastmilk or formula. It’s a common misconception that this is due to a potential for allergies, but in fact it is because cow and other animal milks lack the specific nutrients a baby needs. If the child has animal or plant-based milk in place of human breastmilk or formula, they can develop a nutrient deficiency.

Breastmilk has evolved over thousands of years to provide an infant with a balanced profile of the nutrients it needs. Whale milk is different from cow milk, which is different from goat milk, which is different from human milk. Each animals’s milk is specific to each infant animal’s needs and in a form that their bodies can absorb. Even if the goat or cow’s milk you find is straight from the udder, unprocessed and unpasteurized, it is still not the correct profile of nutrients for a human infant. Therefore, non-human animal milk cannot replace breastmilk until the infant is eating a substantial and varied amount of solid foods, which doesn’t occur until around their first birthday.

Luckily, modern science has been able to approximate human breastmilk nutrients in formula, and it has proven to be a perfectly sufficient replacement. There are of course differences, namely immunological components, but in terms of the nutrient profile versus another animal’s milk, formula is the far superior choice. This also applies to any plant-based milks on the market, however if you are interested in a plant-based formula, please be sure it is FDA approved as quality and formulations can vary.

Because cow milk-avoidance prior to the first year is not an issue of allergy in most babies, it is completely fine to offer them milk in the form of cheese, baked goods, etc as part of their increasingly solid diet. If you do suspect allergy, however, consult your doctor for the best way to approach this as there has been a lot of new early-years food allergy research in the past several years.