Do kids need cow's milk?

Parents are often told to avoid giving their children cow’s milk until after their first birthday. And, indeed, most parents report offering cow’s milk soon thereafter. It is a common and convenient food that has long been touted as a source of calcium and protein for growing children. Perhaps because of the dairy industry’s powerful advertising presence, generations of parents were convinced that cow’s milk wasn’t just a healthy choice for their toddler, but a necessary one. In recent years, that belief has fallen under scrutiny, with many parents now questioning whether their children need cow’s milk at all.

Studies show that there are many healthy alternatives to cow’s milk. In fact, many people in different parts of the world drink little or no cow’s milk, but still get the calcium and protein they need. An estimated 65 percent of the human adult population has a diminished ability to digest lactose (the sugar found in milk) after infancy and early childhood. Lactose intolerance is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent, affecting more than 90 percent of adults in some communities. Lactose intolerance is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent. The incidence of lactose intolerance is lowest in populations with a long history of eating unfermented milk products. For example, only about 5 percent of people of Northern European descent are lactose intolerant. 

Humans have a long history of not consuming another species’ milk. Our ancient ancestors, lacking the gene that produces lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose), didn’t drink milk. University College London scientists studying Neolithic remains have hypothesized that dairy farming led to the development of lactose tolerance. When cows became domesticated, farmers decided to consume the milk. In order to process the milk, the human body had to adapt. 

A history of the introduction of cow’s milk to children’s diets 

The European Union, in 2008, funded a research project—LECHE (Lactase Persistence and the Early Cultural History of Europe)—to explore the origins of milk consumption in Europe. Researchers looked at ancient pottery remains and bone tissues as well as certain isotopes that show whether a person was breastfed. It’s believed that cows became domesticated first to provide meat, though milk byproducts have been found in pottery dating back to 4,500 BC, long before humans had developed the ability to digest unprocessed milk. Large-scale dairy farms did not emerge until the 20th century, however, there are reports of infants consuming cow’s milk and goat’s milk from horns, cloth nipples, bottles, and spoons during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Transitioning from human milk to cow’s milk at a certain time—or introducing cow’s milk soon after the first birthday—was a foreign concept for a long time. Ancient records reveal that in Babylonia, babies often breastfed for 2–3 years, according to Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, edited by Katherine A. Dettwyler and Patricia Stuart-Macadam. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, children generally breastfed (either from their own mothers or wet nurses) for 1–3 years. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that European children began to be weaned at about 12 months of age (sometimes at even younger ages), due to work-related demands requiring early separation of mothers and their babies. 

In the age of the postindustrial revolution, working women were often unable to breastfeed due the type of jobs they held, their proximity to the jobs, and whether relatives lived nearby and could help with child care. According to Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, some mothers breastfed in the morning and evening, before and after work, and left daytime feeding options—often “dry nursing” (flour, bread, or cereal cooked in broth or water)—to the young girls and old women who cared for the babies. The food was also often dosed with opiates, medicines commonly used to treat colic and other symptoms. Use of opiates made nighttime nursing difficult—and thus reduced a mother’s own milk supply. Over time, children adapted and were able to process readily available cow’s milk, as well as cow’s milk-based infant formulas. 

Although many contemporary children are able to digest cow’s milk, it is possible to have a healthy cow’s milk-free diet. When the time is right for you and your baby to start the weaning process, if you decide you don’t want your child to consume cow’s milk, you should speak with your child’s health care provider about your family’s decision to forgo cow’s milk and discuss the various healthy alternatives. 

Sources of calcium 

Options for ensuring your child gets enough calcium include: 

  • leafy green vegetables (collard greens, kale, broccoli) 
  • whole grains 
  • blackstrap molasses 
  • figs 
  • nuts and seeds 
  • tofu 
  • fortified juice (in small amounts
  • sea vegetables (spinach) 
  • fortified almond, rice, or hemp milk

To ensure that your child gets enough healthy fats, consider: 

  • nuts and seeds 
  • avocado 
  • olive oil 
  • yogurt 
  • cheese (in moderate amounts, this is even okay for people with lactose intolerance) 

If your family chooses to avoid cow’s milk altogether, you can rest assured that your baby can still meet her nutritional needs.

Additional reporting by Mary Jessica Hammes

Last updated July 10, 2017

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