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How to Introduce Milk to Baby - An Early Allergen Introduction Guide

February 18, 2021 3 min read

Introducing allergens to your baby early on is essential to helping lower your little one’s risk of allergies later in life. Affecting between 2% and 3% of children younger than 3 years old, one of the most common food allergies in young children is cow’s milk. While up to 20% of those children may outgrow this allergy by age 4, this allergy can have a huge impact on your child’s quality of life. 

Though we know milk can be found in dairy products, there are also many hidden sources of milk. It can be found in processed foods, baked goods, and processed meats and even if a food is labeled "milk-free" or "nondairy," it may still contain allergy-causing milk proteins.

Thanks to landmark clinical studies, we now know that introducing babies to cow’s milk early and consistently, before they turn one, is essential in giving them the healthy growth and thriving tummies they will need as they age.

When To Introduce Milk To Baby

The 2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines suggests that, along with most allergenic foods, milk proteins should be introduced to children with solids around 4-6 months of age, however, they caution against offering cow's milk as a beverage until your child is 12 months old.  

With landmark clinical studies like the EAT study, we now know that consistently and strategically introducing the allergenic protein of cow’s milk starting around 4 months of age has a protective effect against milk allergies.

As one of the most prominent allergy-causing foods in infants and children, cow’s milk is an important nutritional addition when introducing solids.

How To Introduce Milk To Baby

According to the USDA, “cow’s milk, as a beverage, should be introduced at age 12 months or later” in addition to water and juice. 

Cow’s milk should not be used as a substitute for formula or breastmilk, but the allergenic protein can be introduced as a nutritional supplement alongside other solids when your baby reaches 4-6 months of age.

Here are some of our favorite ways to help your child adjust to this important allergen throughout their first year of life:

From 4-12 Months
  • Plain Yogurt & Ricotta Cheese - Both are safe options as your baby starts eating solids. Be sure that they’re free of additives, flavors, and that they’re made with whole milk. Start with plain whole-milk yogurt and move into whole-milk ricotta as your baby starts eating thicker purees and solid foods.

12+ Months

While the recommendation is to start allergen introduction between 4-6 months, it is never too late.

  • Mix Cow’s Milk Into Existing Diet - You can also sneak milk into your child’s everyday foods, like pouring some over their cereal, mixing in oatmeal, blending in a smoothie, or mixing in soups, mashed potatoes, or mac and cheese.
  • Introduce Cow’s Milk as a Beverage - Like any other food, cow’s milk may not be accepted by your child right away. To help with the transition, you can try mixing it into a more familiar milk, like breastmilk or formula, and let them drink from a bottle, sippy cup, or regular cup. 

What’s the Difference Between a Milk Allergy and Lactose Intolerance

A milk intolerance and milk allergy are often confused, since both are sensitivities to milk protein, and both share similar symptoms. However, a milk allergy involves the immune system and an intolerance involves the digestive system. 

If your baby has a food allergy to milk, it means that their immune system has identified the milk protein as harmful and overreacts. You will know right away or within a couple of hours after feeding if they have an allergy. The most common symptoms of a milk allergy include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Swelling
  • Itchiness
  • Rashes or hives
  • Breathing difficulties

As milk is a widely used ingredient, if your child is allergic to cow's milk, you'll want to avoid foods with this ingredient such as cottage cheese, ice cream, yogurt, butter, and powdered milk. Though cow’s milk is the usual cause of a milk allergy, children can also react to milk from other mammals like sheep, goats, or buffalos. Individuals who are allergic to cow’s milk may also be allergic to soy milk, but it is less likely. 

Alternatively, babies who are intolerant have an inability to digest lactose into simple sugar. This will also be noticeable within a few minutes or hours of ingesting, but does not include symptoms such as swelling or rashes. Other symptoms may be similar, and can include:

  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea 
  • Colic
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Supplement your lactose-intolerant child's diet with other sources of calcium and vitamin D to ensure his healthy development.

If you are unsure if your child is experiencing an allergy or intolerance, visit your pediatrician.