Cow's milk and children

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Alternative Names

Milk and children; Cow’s milk allergy - children; Lactose intolerance - children


You may have heard that cow's milk should not be given to babies younger than 1 year old. This is because cow's milk doesn't provide enough of certain nutrients. Also, it's hard for your baby to digest the protein and fat in cow's milk. It is safe though, to give cow’s milk to children after they're 1 year old.

A child who is 1 or 2 years old should only drink whole milk. This is because the fat in whole milk is needed for your child’s developing brain. After 2 years old, children can drink low-fat milk or even skim milk if they are overweight.

Some children have problems from drinking cow's milk. For instance, a milk allergy may cause:

  • Belly pain or cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea

A severe allergy can cause bleeding in the intestines that can lead to anemia. But only about 1 to 3% of children under 1 year old have a milk allergy. It is even less common in children who are older than 1 to 3 years.

Lactose intoleranceoccurs when the small intestine does not make enough of the enzyme lactase. A child who is lactose intolerant can't digest lactose. This is a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. The condition can cause bloating and diarrhea.

If your child has one of these problems, your health care provider may recommend soy milk. But many children who are allergic to milk are also allergic to soy.

Children usually outgrow allergies or intolerances by the time they are 1 year old. But having one food allergy increases the risk for having other types of allergies.

If your child can't have dairy or soy, talk to your provider about other food options that will help your child get enough protein and calcium.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends the following daily amounts of dairy for children and teens:

  • Two through 3 years old: 2 cups
  • Four through 8 years old: 2½ cups
  • Nine through 18 years old: 3 cups

One cup of dairy equals:

  • One cup of milk
  • Eight ounces of yogurt
  • Two ounces of processed American cheese
  • One cup of pudding made with milk


Nowak-Wegrzyn A, Burks AW, Sampson HA. Reactions to foods. In: Adkinson NF Jr., Bochner BS, Burks AW, et al, eds. Middleton's Allergy Principles and Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 81.

Parks EP, Shaikhkhalil A, Groleau V, Wendel D, Stallings VA. Feeding healthy infants, children, and adolescents. In: Kliegman RM, Stanton BF, St Geme JW III, Schor NF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 20th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 45.

United States Department of Agriculture. Dairy. Available at: Accessed July 23, 2015.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 7/10/2015
  • Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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