In my 13 years of pediatric practice, I have counseled thousands of new parents about their myriad concerns for their newborns, most recently how to meet the nutritional needs of their baby if the family uses baby formula. This is a stressful situation that is causing anxiety for many parents. First and foremost, keeping our babies adequately fed is imperative.
Though the formula shortage persists, there is potential for a positive outcome for young families. That is to educate expecting and new parents that there is, in fact, no need for infants to consume cow’s milk products. Moreover, research shows that cow’s milk products can be harmful to developing infants. Fortunately, there is another option.
As an adjunct to my work with infants and children, I advocate for preventive medicine and plant-based nutrition. I currently own a primary care pediatric practice in Yakima that integrates lifestyle medicine and focuses on well-being. Although cow’s milk intake has historically been associated with health, my experience as a pediatrician has shown that there are many health risks associated with cow’s milk consumption.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if an infant drinks cow’s milk before the age of one, the baby could be at risk for intestinal bleeding. In fact, cow’s milk protein allergy can affect up to 6% of infants worldwide. Cow’s milk is also associated with atopic conditions such as eczema and asthma and can lead to anemia, constipation and chronic abdominal pain. These are conditions that I encounter frequently in my pediatric practice.
Breast milk is ideal for the first year of life; however, this crucial message must be measured with care for new mothers unable for a variety of reasons to nurse their infants. For the first six months, infants do not need any nourishment other than breast milk (or formula). They should continue to receive breast milk (or formula) at least through their first 12 months.
New parents with a desire but an inability to breastfeed may consider a human milk bank. The Northwest Mothers Milk Bank is available to parents in our state. Another source of information is the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, a voluntary professional association for human milk banks. The organization issues voluntary safety guidelines for member banks on screening donors, and collecting, processing, handling, testing and storing milk.
For parents who choose or need to use formula, soy-based formulas are healthful options for infants (excluding those with a soy allergy, of course), and provide all the nutrients the baby needs in the first six months of life. Soy-based formulas have been available for more than 100 years, are safe and nutritionally complete for babies, and do not appear to be in short supply.
Parents may wonder if it is acceptable to water down formula to make it last longer, but this should not be done as it is very dangerous. Watering down formula dilutes its nutritional content and could lead to deadly electrolyte abnormalities.
By around 6 months of age, parents may introduce complementary foods to baby’s diet. We know that exposure to a variety of plant foods is incredibly beneficial for our babies as it decreases the risk of food allergies and also supports a healthy and flourishing gut microbiome. In addition, repeated and consistent exposure to the flavors of vegetables and fruits increases the likelihood that babies will come to prefer these foods.
As a mother, I know firsthand the stress that comes with uncertainty about whether I am doing what is best for my child. But following these steps has helped me raise healthy children and my patients have benefited from this guidance as well.