When Should I Introduce Dairy or Cow’s Milk to my Baby?

It’s natural for parents to have a lot of questions when they start to introduce foods beyond breast milk or formula. One of the most common questions new parents ask is when they can start to introduce dairy and cow’s milk to their baby. The answer can get a bit complicated, but Health Canada states, “If parents and caregivers are introducing cow’s milk, advise them to delay until 9 to 12 months of age. Recommend limiting cow milk intake to no more than 750 mL per day.”

Why you should delay introducing dairy (cow’s milk) until 9 to 12 months of age

It’s not that there is something in dairy that’s unsafe for babies. The recommendation is related to iron. Iron is important for babies’ growth and in particular their brain development.

There are 4 ways that dairy foods can be a concern with respect to iron:

  1. Dairy foods aren’t a source of iron.
  2. Many babies love drinking cow’s milk and eating other dairy foods. Thus, dairy foods can crowd out iron-rich foods.
  3. Dairy foods can interfere with babies’ absorption of iron.
  4. Young infants cannot digest cow’s milk as completely or easily as they digest formula.

So the recommendation was created to provide advice on how to include cow’s milk in a way that doesn’t interfere with babies’ need for iron.

Frequently asked questions about introducing dairy to your baby:

1. Does this mean that I need to wait until 9 – 12 months to give my baby cheese and yogurt? What about foods that contain cow’s milk?

No. Any time from about 6 months onwards, feel free to introduce small amounts of yogurt and (pasteurized) cheese amongst the wide variety of foods that you’re introducing to your baby. Just don’t make yogurt or cheese a food that you’re giving large amounts of, day after day. Make them a ‘sometimes’ food, not a ‘frequent’ food. The same goes for other foods that use cow’s milk as an ingredient, such as sauces and dips.

2. 9 – 12 months is a big age range, should I wait until 9 months or 12 months?

The reason behind the age range is that you want your baby to be regularly eating a good amount of solid foods multiple times a day before you introduce cows’ milk. Like learning any new skill, some babies master eating solids quicker and some take longer to actually get any significant amount of food in them (as opposed to on their face and clothes, in their hair, and on the floor). If your baby is eating lots of solid foods (particularly iron-rich foods), feel free to start introducing small amounts of cows’ milk after 9 months. If your baby is slower to get the hang of eating solids (particularly iron-rich foods), wait until 12 months.

3. Why does Health Canada give a limit per day?

It’s above 3-4 cups per day that we start to see the negative effects of cows’ milk on eating iron-rich foods and iron’s absorption. This can result in iron deficiency.

Want to learn more? Check out our guide to introducing solids to your baby for more helpful tips!