Is Your Baby Getting Adequate Nutrition From Animal- or Plant-based Breast Milk Substitutes?

Many parents think milk from a cow or a goat is a healthy alternative to breast milk or formula. Unfortunately, for babies who have very specific needs during the first year of life, it is not. Cow’s milk doesn’t provide enough:

  • Vitamin E
  • Iron
  • Essential fatty acids

And cow’s milk provides too much:

  • Potassium
  • Protein
  • Sodium

Allergy to cow’s milk is also the most common food allergy in babies and toddlers, and reactions to it can range from mild through to life-threatening anaphylaxis. Be aware that milk allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance, as a milk allergy involves the immune system whereas lactose intolerance does not.

Protein from goat’s milk is often thought of as being less allergenic than cow’s milk; however, this is a myth – it can also cause a reaction in infants with a milk allergy.  Other disadvantages of goat’s milk include:

  • Low vitamin content, including low folate levels
  • Excessively high levels of minerals
  • Excessively high levels of protein

Giving unpasteurized cow’s or goat’s milk to your baby can also have very serious consequences, such as:

  • Severely abnormal levels of electrolytes including sodium, potassium, calcium, and chloride
  • High levels of acid in the body
  • Hemolyticuric syndrome (which can lead to kidney failure)
  • Anemia
  • Infections
  • Bleeding on the brain.

Almond milk is for hipsters not for babies!
I’m a big fan of plant-based milks. Not only they are delicious (in my opinion), but they are also often better for the environment (depending on the type of plant) and less ethically compromising than animal-based milks. But for babies, they are unsuitable as breast milk substitutes since they do not provide adequate levels of the essential vitamins and minerals needed in the first year of life nor do some of them provide enough fat or protein.

Recently, a case study of a baby with scurvy due to only being fed with almond milk was published in the journal Pediatrics. The baby had fractured brittle bones, was irritable, and was underweight for his age of 11 months. Fortunately, following treatment with vitamin C, the baby’s condition improved and he started walking.

Soy milk is another popular drink among adults but, like almond milk, it is generally not suitable for babies. Soy milk and soya-based milk formula contain glucose which can be harmful for your babies teeth. Soyabeans also contain high levels of phytoestrogens, a plant version of the female sex hormone estrogen. High levels of phytoestrogens may affect things like the timing of puberty or changes in breast tissue and so therefore, to be on the safe side, it is best to avoid soya milk or soya protein-based formula if possible.

Rice milk and oat milk are also not recommended for babies or infants because they contain low levels of fat and protein.

 After breast milk, formula is the best for babies
If you are unable or unwilling to breastfeed, commercial infant formula is the next best option. These days, most infant formula is of very good quality and contains fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals at levels which mimic those found in breast milk. If you are not breastfeeding at all, you should make sure that the formula you buy is fortified with iron, as this mineral is essential for your baby’s health. All infant formulas sold in the USA must meet the nutritional standards set by the FDA.

Most formulas are based on:

  • Cow’s milk protein
  • Soya milk protein
  • Protein hydrolysate

If your baby has a milk or soy allergy and they do not tolerate milk or soy protein-based formula, protein hydrolysate-based formula is recommended due to containing proteins which are less likely to cause an allergic reaction.

The Internet can make you confused with so many different sources of information giving you many different, and often contradictory, messages on topics like breast milk substitutes. If you are worried about your baby’s health, including his/her nutrition, the best thing to do is to talk to your pediatrician. Using their education and experience, they can help you decide what is best for your baby.

Melody Watson
Melody Watson holds Bachelors degrees in Biochemistry and Microbiology. She works as a medical writer for a medical communications agency in Berlin, Germany, where her work ranges from medical translation to writing publications for medical journals. Melody is passionate about promoting science, including evidence-based medicine, and debunking pseudoscience.

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