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Choosing the Right Milk

Your child’s health depends on choosing the right milk. For a baby’s first six months, exclusive breastfeeding is recommended as the sole source of nutrition. Breast milk is nutritionally complete and has antibodies to prevent and overcome infections.

Formula can be used when breast milk is not available. Babies cannot digest cow’s milk as easily as breast milk or
formula. A baby’s kidneys have difficulty handling the high concentrations of protein and minerals in cow’s milk.
During your baby’s first 12 months, avoid cow’s milk.

Baby formulas are formulated to be a nutritionally complete alternative to breast milk. Soy, rice or other plant beverages do not contain sufficient nutrients to substitute breast milk for a baby under 12 months. Most baby formulas are cow’s milk-based, have extra iron necessary to boost an infant’s iron reserve to prevent iron deficiency anemia and contain healthy fatty acids to support development for a baby’s brain and eyes.

Baby formulas come in many varieties, including hydrolyzed formulas that are predigested so larger proteins are broken down into smaller ones to help with digestion. Not all infants require hydrolyzed formulas. Some infants with cow’s milk protein allergy, a condition where the body’s immune system has an abnormal reaction against the protein in cow’s milk, may require this type of formula. Soy-based formulas are best used in special circumstances, such as in a rare medical condition known as galactossemia, or when religious or cultural reasons require avoiding dairy. The market is full of different formulas. Read labels carefully and, if in doubt, ask your doctor or pediatrician to know what’s right for your baby.

After your baby’s first year, whole cow’s milk can be provided along with solid food. Limit milk to a maximum of 500 to 720 ml (16 to 24 ounces) to prevent displacing the intake of other nutritious foods and developing iron deficiency anemia. After two years, your child may have reduced-fat milk. Cow’s milk alternatives (soy, rice or almond milk) will provide less protein and calories. Overall, choosing the right milk depends on your child’s age and tolerance. Ask your doctor or a dietician.

Becky Biqi Chen was a resident in general pediatrics for three years at the Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre. She is currently specializing in pediatric gastroenterology during her fellowship at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital.


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