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Ages & Stages

Why Do Infants Need Baby Formula Instead of Cow's Milk?

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Many parents ask why they can't feed their baby regular cow's milk instead of breast milk or formula. There are two main reasons:

  • Infants cannot digest cow's milk as completely or easily as they digest breast milk or baby formula.

  • More importantly, cow's milk is not a source of complete nutrition for babies under 1 year old, since it does not contain enough of certain nutrients they need.

Beyond digestion: the nutrients babies need

Cow's milk contains high concentrations of protein and minerals, which can stress a newborn's immature kidneys. This can cause severe illness if your baby gets a fever, diarrhea or heat stress.

In addition, cow's milk lacks the proper amounts of iron, vitamin C and other nutrients that infants need. Cow's milk also does not contain the healthiest types of fat for growing babies.

It may even cause iron-deficiency anemia in some babies because cow's milk protein can irritate the lining of the stomach and intestine. This can lead to loss of blood, from small amounts you can't see all the way to bloody stools.

For these reasons, your baby should not receive any cow's milk (or other non-human milk or milk substitute) until they are about 12 months of age unless no alternative is available.

Once your baby turns 1 year old

Once your baby is past one year old, you may give them pasteurized whole cow's milk or reduced-fat (2%) milk, provided they have a balanced diet of solid foods (cereals, vegetables, fruits and meats). But limit their intake of milk to 2 cups (about 16 ounces) per day or less. More than 24 ounces a day has been associated with iron deficiency if toddlers aren't getting enough other healthy iron-rich foods.

If your baby is not yet eating a broad range of solid foods, talk to your pediatrician about the best nutrition for them. (See "Sample Menu for a 1-Year-Old Child.")

At this age, children still need a higher fat content, which is why whole vitamin D-fortified milk is recommended for most infants after turning one year old. If your child is or is at risk for overweight, or if there is a family history of obesity, high blood pressure or heart disease, your pediatrician may recommend 2% (reduced-fat) milk.

Age 2 and up

Do not give your baby 1% (low-fat) or nonfat (skimmed) milk before their second birthday, as it does not contain enough fat for brain development. After two years of age, you should discuss your child's nutritional needs with your pediatrician. However, many children at this age can transition to lower-fat milk if that is what your family uses.

More information

Last Updated
American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition (Copyright © 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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