The Dairy Dilemma Demystified (for Babies Under 12 Months)

by Christen on January 4, 2010 · 15 comments

in Home

It is a common question of new moms: Why can I give my 6-9 month old baby cheese, yogurt, and some other milk products, but cow’s milk is forbidden for the first year? I will attempt to break down answers to the following questions.

  • Why is (drinking) milk taboo for baby’s first year?
  • Why are other dairy products OK for my baby to eat?
  • How do I determine if my baby has a milk allergy, sensitivity or intolerance?

 Why is (drinking) milk taboo for baby’s first year?
Let’s tackle the obvious. Cow’s milk is the perfect food for baby cows, not baby humans. It lacks many of the essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antibodies found in breast milk. Commercially prepared formula is nutritionally a good substitute for breast milk, though it lacks many of essential omega 3s, immune-booting white blood cells, immunoglobulins, healthy enzymes, and hormones that simply cannot be reproduced in a laboratory.

Cow’s milk, as a substitute for breast milk or formula, can cause anemia (an iron deficiency) in babies under 12 months of age. The sugars (lactose) and proteins (casein) in cow’s milk are difficult to digest and interfere with iron absorption. Most babies are born with an iron storage that lasts for approximately six to nine  months. Once that storage is depleted, it must be replenished. That’s why many baby cereals and formulas are fortified with iron. If you decide to exclusively breastfeed and wait to introduce solids until after 6-7 months, talk to your pediatrician about adding vitamin supplements, such as Enfamil’s Poly-Vi-Sol(R) with Iron.  

Most formulas have a cow’s milk base, though the sugars and proteins are broken down to a digestible form so it won’t interfere with iron absorption. If you suspect your baby has allergies or sensitivities  to cow’s-milk formula, try switching to a soy-based or protein hydrolysate formula.  

 Why are other dairy products OK for my baby to eat?

Other dairy products such as cheese, whole-milk yogurt, and foods that have cooked milk in them (such as SuperMac & Cheese and Berry Smooth) are allowed and recommended for your baby under 12 months. Why? First of all, these foods do not serve as the main source of nutrition. Breast milk or formula should remain the nutritional mainstay for the first 12 months.

Second, the difficult-to-digest-sugars found in cow’s milk  (lactose)  are limited and in some cases completely removed by the culturing process. Similarly, when milk is cooked as an ingredient in other foods, the lactose is broken down or removed entirely.

When introducing yogurt to your little one, start with a plain whole milk organic yogurt with no added sugars. We recommend Stonyfield’s YoBaby mixed with a fruit puree, such as Pears Perfect or an Apple A Day.

Whole milk dairy products in moderation are very good for your baby because they are high in fat and are a great source for calcium and Vitamin D.

How do I determine if my baby has a milk allergy, sensitivity or intolerance?

There is a difference between food allergies, sensitivities and intolerances. We’ll discuss each category and how to spot the differences so you can tailor foods to suit your child’s individual needs.  

Milk Allergy

Most people freely interchange the word “allergy” when referring to an intolerance or sensitivity. However, allergies to milk and dairy products are actually quite rare. When people have a true allergy to milk, the body produces antibodies that release histamines resulting in a quick and often severe reaction, such as wheezing or hives. It’s easy to detect a milk allergy because the body’s reaction to the food is immediate.

Milk Sensitivity

Sensitivities to milk are harder to determine because the reaction times are slower – symptoms often showing up two to three days later. However, it is much more common and less severe than food allergies and intolerances. A milk sensitivity can trigger symptoms such as a chronic a runny nose, congestion, diarrhea, constipation and colic. If your baby is consuming a formula derived from cow’s milk and you notice these symptoms, first try switching to a soy-based formula. However, the protein in milk is similar to that of soy - so often times, babies who are  sensitive to cow’s milk will have a similar reaction to soy. If that is the case, you must switch to a protein hydrolysate formula. The good news is, many babies will eventually outgrow their sensitivity to soy, milk or other dairy related products.

Milk Intolerance

Intolerances can be difficult to diagnose though reactions can be quite severe. A person has a milk intolerance when he/she lacks the specific  enzymes to digest lactose (milk sugar) and/or casein (milk protein). Intolerances can lead to reactions within a few hours, such as diarrhea or cramps, and in rare cases can also lead to more severe long-term problems such as decreased attention span, hyperactivity, and even social withdrawal – among other neurological reactions.

Scientists have discovered a link between autism and ADHD and casein intolerance. Many children with autism/ADHD do not have enough digestive enzymes to break down the protein and/or have problems with their intestinal lining. Because the proteins are insufficiently broken down, these complex protein chains negatively react with the brain, causing a wide array of neurological problems.  In fact, removal of casein  (and other proteins such as gluten and soy) from affected child’s diet can dramatically improve symptoms of autism and/or ADHD.

{ 2 trackbacks }

The Dairy Dilemma Demystified | We Three Moms
January 18, 2010 at 9:33 pm
Food Sensitivities and Autism Spectrum Disorders: Is There a Link? | NurtureBaby Blog
January 20, 2010 at 9:51 pm

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Zell January 5, 2010 at 12:18 am

Wow! In a nutshell! Great overview, but the allergy aspect could use a bit of fleshing out. First off, whey is another protein present in milk, and it (more often than casein) is what people are allergic to. Kids under 3 have a special enzyme that helps them digest lactose (also present in human mama milk), so that’s not usually an issue. Both food allergies and food intolerances result in the release of histamines, though what happens in the body is a bit of a different chemical reaction that triggers the release of histamines.

Grown-ups outgrown the ability to deal with lactose because human babies drink human milk, then, except for in predominantly white/western European cultures, no milk at all. So it’s weird and perhaps against our biological nature to drink the milk of another mammal.

Don’t get me wrong – cheese is great stuff, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say milk is “good” for you. If you indulge in dairy (and let your kids eat it), be sure it’s because you just plain like the stuff.

For all milk’s good nutritional points (calcium, for instance), there is something that cancels it out (calcium can’t be efficiently absorbed without magnesium, a nutrient that milk lacks, and a high-protein diet requires more calcium to digest the protein…and milk is high in protein). You get the gist.

Ice cream and cheese are fantastic, but eat them ’cause they’re good, not because they have calcium, protein, or vitamin D (the best source for D is the sun – skip the sunscreen for a 20 minute walk!)

Now time for some ice cream :)

Jennifer Lee Ross January 5, 2010 at 9:33 pm

Thanks for this useful information. My friend and I were just discussing this very topic the other day – why we could give cheese and yogurt now, but not milk. I am forwarding her this link!

Christen January 6, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Megan, great insight – as always! Perhaps I can post a follow up link explaining more of the allergy info. It’s really facinating stuff, especially the links between casein, gluten, soy and ADHD/Autism. I was not aware that whey was a common allergen, but that makes total sense.

I was also aware that calcium is difficult to absorb from milk products, but I didn’t know why. Thanks for the additional info.

Oh, and enjoy the ice cream! :)


Kristin Bogle, Ph.D. January 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Hi there – I enjoy your website, but I think you might want to double check your facts on the link between diet and Autism and ADHD (which really shouldn’t be lumped together by any stretch of the imagination). Reputable scientific studies have shown no link between diet and either disorder. People tend to look for an easy explanation and an easy solution when a child is struggling with a disability, but these rarely pan out. Same thing with the vaccine theory. Just saying you may want to double-check your science so you don’t inadvertently perpetuate a myth.


Kristin Bogle, Ph.D.

Christen January 7, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Hi Kristin –

Thank you for your response. I truly respect and appreciate your professional opinion, even if we may disagree on a few things. I am certainly not a doctor and don’t want to rear anyone in the wrong direction; I am just a mom with a mind bent on learning (and applying) how to best nutritionally nurture our little ones.

I will update my blog, and will provide additional information about the link between ADHD/Autism and diet. I don’t think enough information was provided in my last post, but there is plenty of evidence that a casein and gluten free diet can be extremely successful for those suffering with ADHD and Autism.

I agree with you that some additional studies should be performed, but you can’t argue with the thousands of parents out there that state the gluten free/casein free diet has been wildly successful for their children. Thankfully, I am blessed that my child has not been diagnosed with ADHD or Autism. However, if things were different, I would be willing to try any and every natural/healthy remedy out there possible before ruling the diet ineffective.

(For parents with an ADHD or Autistic child, I am not a professional…please do not take my word for it! Research the gluten free/casein free diet for yourself and talk to your child’s pediatrician before making any drastic changes. And bear in mind that differences in opinions amongst parents and professionals are healthy and can lead to further enlightenment about your child’s unique case.)

Thanks again for your response, Kristin.

Take care,

Minivan Mama January 18, 2010 at 9:25 pm

Great info, Christen! I’d like to share it on my blog with your permission (and credit to you, of course!). I’m going to go ahead and post a link, let me know if you want me to take it down. Thanks!

Christen January 18, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Sure, no problem! Thanks for sharing! :)

Ina March 6, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Interesting article! I’m wondering whether a milk intolerance can show up as eczema, because my son’s pediatrician recommended he switch to a soy formula for his eczema.

Laura April 5, 2010 at 8:36 pm

The GF/CF diet worked wonders for my son! On top of that…removing artifical dyes, preservatives, etc…WOW…it really helped his GI tract, BMs, ADHD behaviors, language processing, etc. We even went through a ‘withdrawl’ time from the casein in milk. He was literally, addicted to it and craved the milk!
Anyways, great blog…I’m always looking for new recipes and ideas!
So, thank you!

Kelly August 22, 2010 at 8:12 pm

My little girl just turned one last week, and I have to admit, I’m dreading her one year check up a bit! At three weeks, I switched her to Nutramigen after an unsuccessful attempt at breastfeeding (which resulted in mastitis, and two weeks of an absolutely miserable newborn. She went through 32 diapers in one day, 26 of which were poo poos. My pediatrician insisted that I give her presscriptions, try warm compresses, etc., but nothing worked. My mother had been through all of this with my sister, and convinced me to try switching from regular formula to the Nutramigen. After the first feeding, the diarrea and vomit stopped – it was a miracle!

Over the past year, I have had to give her yogurt once when she was taking an antibiotic. She threw it right back up. I know that my Pediatrician is going to suggest that I try switching to cow’s milk now that she’s a year old, but I can’t imagine putting her through that pain again.

I also make all of her baby food, and the recipes are calling for eggs and cheeses and milk. Do you think it’s okay to introduce these now with her history? On top of the milk intolerance, she’s got an insanely high gag reflex, so we’re still on purees. I just don’t want to rock the boat. Can you tell I’m a first time mom? ;)

Christen August 22, 2010 at 9:38 pm

It sounds like you are very in-tune with your daughter’s needs and you are doing the absolute best for her. There’s nothing like a mother’s intuition so I would go with your gut as opposed to taking the pediatrician’s advice and switching to milk at your daughter’s first birthday. There is nothing magical about the first birthday, I believe that it has just become a cultural norm.

My niece who just turned one is allergic to cow’s milk as well. She switched to soy milk instead of cow’s milk and is doing just fine. As for the baby food contaning egg and milk products, I would introduce them slowly and see if she continues to have an intolerance to them. Keep in mind, there’s no nutritional reason to HAVE to eat these specific foods, as there are plenty of protein and calcium-rich alternatives.

It sounds like you are just the mother your daughter needs…you are doing a great job!

Kelly September 1, 2010 at 7:45 am

Thanks for the advice Christen!

Michelle December 10, 2010 at 3:14 pm

My son developed a ‘Milk intolerance’ at 8 wks of age, he was not switched to Soya until he was 13 weeks, as it was suggested he had ‘Colic’. (He has severe cramps immediately after each bottle, and soon refused to feed at all!) He was cured within 24 hours of switching to Soya milk, and all dairy was excluded until he was 3.
He still avoids most dairy (as dislikes it) but does have milk protein in cakes / biscuits / pizza.
He has just been diagnosed with ASD, aged 8.
I am considering trying a diet, should I just try excluding Caesin, or do i need to exclude gluten too?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: