Is it Safe to Raise a Dairy-free Baby?
Cullen will be a year old next month. I'll spare you the commentary about how I can't believe that's true, etc. - because I'm sure I'll be saying it plenty over the next month. Prepare yourself.
Long before he was born, I had made it my goal to try to breastfeed for a year. I set the one year mark for a number of reasons, but mostly because that is the recommended age by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and it also sounded reasonable and realistic for our family.
Generally, around one-year-old babies are transitioned (or weaned) from breastmilk or formula onto cow's milk. This is the norm and what parents and babies have been doing for a long long time. And because it's been the standard for a while, it seems that most people don't really question it.
Well… I guess we are doing just that.
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About a year ago, Casey and I both stopped eating dairy ourselves. I haven't made a big thing of it here, mostly because I don't like labels and I expect that things will ebb and flow with time. The short reason is that we watched Forks Over Knives, read The China Study, and felt like perhaps a diet void of dairy products would be healthier. We both still eat plenty of eggs, and while I am definitely mostly dairy-free, I'm not going to turn down a piece of cake with a little milk in it.
Our decision to be vegetarian is based on ethics, and I don't feel any flexibility there at this point in my life. But my decision to go dairy-free was more health-based, and while health is obviously very important, I don't feel quite as strict or inflexible if a little whip cream ends up on the edge of my dessert plate.
Let me just add that by no means am I looking to get into a debate about veganism or ethics. We made the choice to cut out dairy and sort of see how it went - see how we'd feel, see if anything changed (for better or for worse) - just feel it out. I've felt fine dairy free. To be honest, not really much different. I guess that I didn't eat that much dairy to begin with though.
Okay that was a really long intro, but I'm sure you can see where I am going with this. We've been thinking and talking about this for months, but we're nearing the time when we need to figure out what we'll give Cullen as we prepare to transition him off of breast milk. I have done a lot of research and reading about infant nutrition these last few months. Here are some of the questions that I had and the generalized answers I found from internet and book sources:
What alternatives are there for babies besides cow's milk?
Most sources I found on vegan infant nutrition suggested either extended breastfeeding (for up to 2-3 years), or offering soy milk as an alternative. I do not think soy is the evil estrogen-bomb that it is often made out to be, but I also don't feel comfortable giving Cullen that MUCH direct soy on a daily basis. He will get tofu and edamame here and there, but that's about it.
As far as extended breastfeeding goes, I'm already dealing with my supply starting to drop as we near 11 months. And with that issue aside, we'd like to start thinking about baby #2 sooner than later (although my heart rate increases just typing that). I don't appear to be an overly fertile person (if there is such a thing), and I don't think I will likely get pregnant again until I'm done breastfeeding entirely. This is not an immediate concern, but it's definitely something to consider. I'm not getting any younger!
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What about other milks like almond, coconut, or rice?
These are great milks that can absolutely be part of a baby's diet, but they lack the same nutritional profile (high fat and protein content) that you find in cow or goat's milk. So with that said…
What about goat's milk?
This is an option I'm seriously considering. Most of the research we've done on the health effects of dairy consumption points to casein (milk protein) as the potentially harmful component. The casein in goat's milk is distinctly different from cow's milk, so I'd feel more comfortable possibly trying this.
What about cultures who are generally dairy-free? What do they do?
Obviously this is a huge generalization, but from what I have read, many of these cultures practice extended breastfeeding - usually to 2 or 3 years of age (or older). They also tend to eat higher rates of meat and fish, which helps include some of the nutrients that would otherwise be found in dairy products.
What about babies who are lactose intolerant? What do they drink?
Many seem to do well drinking goat's milk. But like the cultures noted above, most babies with lactose intolerance are not also avoiding meat and fish, so they are able to get those nutrients from other sources.
The overwhelming takeaway from all of my research was that it's important to remember that infant nutrition is very different from that of an adult. They are going through critical brain and body development that requires different levels of nutrients and vitamins than we when we're older and finished growing. I have ethical and health beliefs that are important to me, but my main focus is on making sure my son gets everything he needs to be healthy and strong.
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So with all of this said - what is the answer? I still don't know! Part of me wonders if we give our babies cow's milk because that's simply what we've been doing for years and years without question.
While I worry about some of the health effects of dairy consumption, I'm also worried about the potential for not meeting Cullen's nutritional needs. At this point I'm considering including dairy in his diet at a very minimal level, whether that's through goat's milk, cow's milk, cheese, yogurt, or something else. I'd like to keep it in the 10% range, and make sure to include plenty of other healthy protein and fat sources - eggs, lentils, avocado, etc.
We plan to raise Cullen as a vegetarian until he is able to decide otherwise (If he chooses to!), but beyond that I don't want him to feel limited and constrained. Parenting involves making a lot of choices that can often feel like drawing a fine line between protecting values and pushing personal beliefs. Flexibility and respect for all opinions is key.
Sorry this is more of a ramble than a cohesive post. I guess you can tell we are still sort of feeling it out and figuring out next steps. I'm curious to hear what (and how) other moms handled weaning and making similar choices. One thing is for sure - parenting is tricky business and it's a responsibility that weighs heavy on my mind. We'll need to figure it out soon enough!
- By Emily Malone
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