Important note: Infants younger than 12 months should not be given anything other than breastmilk or formula, with solid food and water introduced after 6 months and when developmentally appropriate. Ask your baby’s doctor if you need help determining when it’s appropriate to introduce new foods and beverages to your baby.
Before a baby reaches one year of age, milk from human breasts or its formulated substitute should make up the bulk of a baby’s diet. But what happens after that? When can you switch to cow’s milk? Should you switch to cow’s milk? Goat’s milk? What about soy, or rice, or almond, or hemp, or any other kind of “milk”? Do you need to switch at all?
First things first: No, you don’t have to switch from human milk to any other kind of milk, at any point in time. You can keep breastfeeding, or giving expressed milk, indefinitely, and, in fact, your child may live his entire life without another kind of milk from creature or plant ever touching his lips. After the first year of life for most humans, human milk is no longer their primary source of nutrition, but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. Once children can eat solid food, any of the nutrients found in any kind of milk are available from food. So why do we turn to cow’s milk or plant milk so readily?
Milk from non-human animals
In the United States, cow’s milk is pretty ubiquitous as a beverage. Cow’s milk is an easy-to-source and relatively inexpensive way to get a lot of nutrients—calories, fat, protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin D (when fortified), B vitamins, and more. In the United States, a large volume of cow’s milk is provided to pregnant/breastfeeding people and children through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, and dairy farms are subsidized by the government, making milk an inexpensive product. There is some cultural expectation that children will be weaned from human milk to cow’s milk at some point.
Cow’s milk and breastmilk have very different nutrient profiles (see table 1 below). Before age one, infants cannot easily digest cow’s milk, and the high levels of protein, sodium, and other nutrients may lead to kidney problems.
If you choose to offer cow’s milk to your little one, you’ll have some choices to make. Before three years of age, children should drink whole (4% milkfat) milk. As far as the options go in terms of conventional, organic, grass-fed, or homogenized or not goes, there are many and they’re up to you. The one option that is less negotiable is pasteurization: Children should be given pasteurized milk. Adults can make informed choices about the risks-versus-benefits of raw milk for their own consumption. (You can read more about non-human milk, raw milk, and their risks in my post about homemade formula.)
Some people claim that goat’s milk is closer to human milk than cow’s milk is. Whether people believe this is because of the nutritional values or the taste, this statement doesn’t add up. The nutritional values are higher than that of cow’s milk, and my taste buds can’t find much overlap, either.
How do you milk a plant?
Because milk is part of so many cultures, those who want to avoid non-human animal milk, maybe due to ethical reasons or wanting to avoid allergens, may turn to plant-based milk. Plant-based “milk” is, essentially, a plant/seed/grain/nut soaked in water, blended, and strained. Variations on this are present in cuisines around the globe. These milks—which are maybe better categorized as juices—are often fortified. Without fortification, they provide few nutrients; with fortification, they often provide more than is necessary for children (see tables 2 and 3 below).
While breastmilk and animal milks have similar amounts of carbohydrates to plant-based milk, these sugars are mostly in the form of lactose. Lactose, as well as the human milk oligosaccharides of breastmilk, helps to decrease unhealthy bacteria in the gut, cultivate beneficial bacteria in the gut, and increase absorption of certain minerals. Plant-based milks often have added sweeteners to make them more palatable, and these sweeteners don’t have added benefits.
But what about calcium?
Between the calcium naturally found in food sources (particularly bone-in fish, soy products, and certain types of beans and leafy vegetables) as well as fortified foods, one needn’t touch milk for their calcium needs. The same goes for any of the other nutrients that cow’s milk may provide.
Breastmilk continues to provide nutrition as long as you’re making it. There is no point where it magically changes to an exactly-identical but nutrient-free substance. Once a baby gets to be six months old, foods are introduced to supplement an infant’s milk-based diet, as breastmilk will not provide all of an infant’s needs through the entire first year. (The “food before one is just for fun” rhyme, while catchy, is not really accurate.) As a baby becomes a toddler, her nutritional needs increase again; this doesn’t mean breastmilk and breastfeeding are pointless, just that breastmilk provides proportionally less of a child’s daily nutrient needs. Tables 4 and 5 above show how nutritional needs change between 6 to 12 months and 1 to 3 years of age.
Give your input!
Since my view is very U.S.-centric but my readers are not, I would love input from folks around the globe about moving from human milk to animal or plant milk. Is it encouraged? Discouraged? What nutritive or cultural role does it play?
And for the rest of you, what did you choose to do with your child(ren)? Would you do anything differently? Was introducing milk beyond breastmilk a significant milestone or an afterthought?