Should I give my son cow’s milk?

Photo by Sonja Langford

My son has just turned one.

One is great – he’s an older baby, not yet a toddler, and still has that squishy cuteness I love.

We’ve been doing baby-led weaning with him since he was 5.5 months old, which for the most part, has been very successful. He controls how much he eats and generally eats most of the food we offer him. He LOVES fruit, especially bananas, dates, flat peaches and blueberries – long may this continue.

Turning one also means that he can start having whole milk. Hmmm. I’ve always been a bit skeptical about milk, mainly because I have a slight intolerance to lactose and too much of it sends me running to the nearest loo. So recently, as baby J has been dropping breastmilk feeds, going from constant all-day nursing, to just one, before bed, I’ve been getting some pressure to start him on whole milk as a replacement.

According to the NHS, children between the ages of one and three need to have around 350mg of calcium a day and about 300ml of milk (just over half a pint) would provide this. 300ml is about two small Medela bottles of milk – a lot of liquid to give to a baby that’s already drinking lots of water and eating a very diverse diet! Let’s not even get into how you get all that liquid into them when the NHS recommendation is to cut out bottles around age 1. To contrast, the US recommendation for infants age 1 is 500-700mg of calcium a day!

My view has always been that plant and seed based calcium is much more bio-available that calcium from milk. The calcium in dairy products is not as well absorbed as that in many dark green leafy vegetables – calcium absorbability from kale is considerably higher than that from cow’s milk. But we’ve been suckered into thinking that milk is the best source of calcium by some clever folks at the Milk Marketing board. Everyone knows the famous got milk? campaign, in which a very smart tagline and celebrities were used to sell the benefits of drinking milk. Ever since my teenage flirtation with vegetarianism / veganism, I’ve always wondered why we drink so much milk from another species. We’re the only mammal that does this!

And now that I have a child, I’m really resistant to the idea of giving him cups and cups of whole milk as an easy source of calcium. When I’ve discussed this with M, his question back to me has always been, “But will it harm baby J to have milk?”. My answer is yes. I can’t always guarantee that he will have organic whole milk, free from antibiotics and hormones, especially at nursery. What I can guarantee is that J eats a varied, nutritious diet.

What’s also really important is that I make sure that J gets enough vitamin D to help absorb calcium. With the amazing summer that we’ve had, we can make vitamin D from sunlight on our skin and during the winter, I need to make sure J eats a lot of oily fish and egg yolks.

So what foods have I been giving J to make sure he gets enough calcium each day?

1. Chia seed puddings

These are so easy to make and J loves them!

2. Kale in smoothies

I’ve been blessed with a baby that loves fruit and (some) veg. I whack some kale into a fruit smoothie and J drinks it down!

3. Dates, dates, dates

J loves dates and usually eats at least two a day. He also loves the almond date bars I make – a bonus!

4. Cheese and yoghurt

I only organic cheese and focus on giving J the really rich tasting, complex cheeses, to help develop his palate. He loves strength 7 cheddar, Camembert, mozzarella, goat’s cheese, amongst many, many others. If I give J yoghurt, I only give him greek yoghurt or goat’s milk yoghurt.

Here’s a handy little chart of calcium-rich non-dairy foods.

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