Having a little one comes with so many questions, and it’s understandably scary to traverse something so monumental like raising a dairy-free infant or toddler. We want to reassure you that your child can thrive without an ounce of cow’s milk—no matter what stage of life they are in. We turned to experienced moms and experts to answer your questions on everything from breastfeeding to formula to that tricky transition period between milk and solid food.
Manon Bayard is the Senior Director of Operations at Switch4Good and a mom of three-year-old Rhys.
Dr. Yami Carzola-Lancaster (Dr. Yami) is a board-certified pediatrician based out of Washington where she runs her own private practice, Nourish Wellness. She’s also a mom of two growing boys who have been dairy-free their entire lives.
Dahlia Marin is a registered dietitian nutritionist and mom of five-year-old Lelia. She runs a private practice (Married to Health) in Southern California with her husband, James. She specializes in gut health for adults and children.
Crissandra (Angel) Hall is a mom of four ranging from kinder to young adult! She’s a Southern California-based nurse temporarily working the frontlines in New York. Her youngest three are incredible athletes and run the @dzvegankidathletes Instagram account. Give them a follow!
Dahlia: The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for the first two years of life as the gold standard. Breastfeeding can be quite difficult and sometimes initially a bit uncomfortable, but it is truly the best option for babies. Breast milk is made on a supply-and-demand basis, so the more formula supplements a mother uses, the less her body will naturally produce her own milk. It is impossible to mimic the immune and gut-supporting immunoglobulins, the high level of brain-building essential fatty acids, and gut appropriate proteins in breastmilk.
If breastfeeding is excessively painful or if the mother is concerned her supply may be insufficient (which it rarely is—a baby’s tummy literally is the size of a marble in the first few days of life and increases to the size of an egg), an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant should be consulted for support.
Dahlia: There are a few plant-based formula options available on the market. While some mothers may be wary when they see labels with some type of syrup or sweetener in the first few ingredients, this ingredient is necessary as babies require large amounts of carbohydrate sugar. Earth’s Best is one of the better options.
Dr. Yami: For mothers that can’t breastfeed or need to supplement I recommend an organic soy formula (Earth’s Best has one, but there are others). If there is a potential allergy/sensitivity to soy then try a hydrolyzed formula such as Nutramigen or Similac Alimentum.
Angel: I used Enfamil Prosobee formula from six months to one year then introduced [my daughter] to almond, cashew, and coconut milk.
Some parents may be wary of soy due to floating rumors about estrogen. Soy contains phytoestrogens—a plant-based estrogen that acts differently than animal-based estrogen. Phytoestrogens bind to estrogen receptors in humans and can help regulate the body’s estrogen levels. In cases where excess estrogen enters the body, phytoestrogens can essentially ‘block’ these hormones from interacting with the body.
Dairy, on the other hand, makes up for 60-80 percent of the total estrogen in the typical American diet. Cow’s milk (and cow’s milk products) all contain animal estrogen because it is taken from a pregnant cow. This includes dairy products that claim “no added hormones.” Hormones may not be added, but the natural female hormones stimulated by pregnancy and giving birth are transferred into the milk, which eventually finds its way on our shelves. If you’re concerned about hormones, dairy is not the safe option.
Dr. Yami: I recommend introducing complementary foods between four to six months of age. Mothers that are exclusively nursing can wait closer to six months. When babies are sitting up supported, you know it’s a sign to start if they begin opening their mouths for a spoon and seem interested.
After one year of age, children should be eating three flexibly structured meals and two to three snacks as needed. It’s best to have a flexible schedule for offering food rather than grazing all day. Keep meals simple and remember that once they become toddlers they slow down in their growth velocity and don’t eat as much as they did before.
Angel: Initially, I gave them one new food at a time, so in case of an allergic reaction, it would be easier to eliminate from [that food from] their diet. To start, I mixed each new food with my breast milk. I also made most of their food from scratch.
We live in a world where convenience seems to outweigh good nutrition. Healthy eating is very simple as long as we are willing to be patient with it. I used to boil sweet potatoes and carrots and blended it together with my breast milk, then I separated it into portions and put the containers in the fridge or freezer, so when I had to feed them, it was ready to go. Once my kids turned two years old, they were used to eating healthy foods and I no longer added my breast milk to it.
Dr. Yami: I recommend launching straight into the leafy, bitter greens such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and brussels sprouts—all well-cooked and puréed. I encourage my patients’ parents to treat this time like “flavor boot camp” and introduce as many vegetables, fruits, and whole grains as possible. Children learn to like what they are repeatedly exposed to. At six months I recommend introducing peanut butter and beans. Between nine and 12 months many babies are eating table foods with their families. This is why it is particularly important for the entire family to have a health-promoting diet.
At 12 months most babies will transition off formula to a plant-based milk such as a fortified unsweetened soy or pea milk. However, this should be limited to no more than 16 ounces per day and be consumed during meal or snack time (not sipped between meals). Offer beans, nut butters, avocado, veggies, fruits, and whole grains at whatever texture and consistency the child is ready for.
Manon: Rhys was plant-based from the age of six months, which is also when he started on solids rather than relying solely on formula. In the first few days, I focused on allergy testing him. So while he started off with soft foods like avocado and mashed peas or carrots, I also tested him for peanuts by testing first on his skin and then a small amount on his tongue. Soon after, I was able to offer tofu and check for soy as well. Rhys also enjoyed some mushy cereals very early on.
*This article is reprinted with permission from Switch4Good.
Copyright 2023 Center for Nutrition Studies. All rights reserved.
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