In the last number of years there’s been an explosion of plant-based milks – soy, almond, oat, hemp, coconut, rice, quinoa, and more. Many of us adults use them in our smoothies, on our cereal, and in our coffee. So it’s no wonder that parents are wondering when they can introduce them to their babies.
Recently in Canada, the Health Canada, the Canadian Pediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada, and the Breastfeeding Committee of Canada* provided some guidance around plant-based milks for babies and young children. They recommend waiting until 2 years for using soymilk as a replacement for breastmilk or formula and don’t recommend other plant-based milks (they didn’t give an age for introduction).
I haven’t seen any guidance from US organizations on introducing plant-based milks.
Personally, I find it difficult to give clear advice that I’m certain of. Here’s why:
- I believe that there are many healthy eating patterns – we don’t all need to be vegan, or vegetarian, or eat meat to be healthy. Many cultures around the world traditionally don’t include cows’ milk. And, many cultures do traditionally include cow’s milk. So I don’t see how we needs to or need not to introduce cows milk to babies’.
- We may use cow’s milk or any of these plant-based milks in similar ways (they’re wet and white). However, they are actually quite different foods. They each contain very different nutrients, such as fat, protein, vitamins and minerals. They aren’t equivalent substitutions for each other. So, it’s difficult to give one recommendation that covers so many different beverages.
- This is the first generation of kids where these milks have been widely available (soymilk has been widely available for the longest) so we just don’t have the evidence to see the long-term impact on kids’ health and growth.
That being said, if you’re not planning to introduce your baby to cows milk, here’s what I recommend:
- Continue breastmilk or formula as the primary milk source until your baby is 2 years and older.
- Introduce a wide variety of foods, so that your baby is getting the nutrition that they need from the foods that they’re eating – such as fat, protein, iron, other minerals, and vitamins.
- Think of plant-based milks as a “big kid” food. In other words, serve them in an open/ lidless cup, not in a bottle. Offer them only very occasionally under 2 years of age. If your child is eating a good amount of a wide variety of solid foods, after 2 years of age (or be extra careful and wait until your child is 3 years old), slowly increase the frequency that you offer plant-based milks. Stay well under the limit of 3-4 cups per day (which is the recommended limit for cows’ milk).
- At all ages, choose unsweetened, vitamin and mineral fortified plant-based milks. The “original”, vanilla and other flavoured varieties can have a lot of sugar.