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Plant-based/Vegan Milk For Babies: Is It Healthy? Can It Aid Child’s Development?

| Reviewed By Rhea Eapen

Plant-based milk or vegan milk is on the way to becoming a regular food than the pre-formed notion of "luxury food." One of the increasing popularities of cruelty-free milk can be attributed to the population's reduced ability to digest cow' milk protein after infancy.

A lactose-free substitute to cow milk, plant-based milk or vegan milk is commonly made from almond, cashew, oats, rice, soy or coconut Also termed as mylk, plant-based milk is not just cruelty-free but also possess various additional benefits.

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While the health benefits of non-dairy milk for adults is widely known, what about infants and babies? Is vegan milk or plant-based milk safe/healthy for growing children? Let us find out.

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Is Vegan Milk Safe For Your Baby?

A growing number of parents are opting for plant-based milk for infants and toddlers who are no longer breastfeeding and steering away from dairy[1]. Parents choose plant-based milk for several reasons, including availability and concerns around allergies, sustainability, and health [2].

The declining popularity of cow milk is a verifiable one, however, there are concerns on whether vegan milk is a suitable option for infants and babies. There are more dairy-free options than ever before including options like almond milk, soy milk, and coconut milk; a bonus [3][4].

On exploring the number of studies on vegan milk for infants and analysing the data, the following have been understood:

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Point 1: There is a potential association between decreased height and drinking plant-based milk [5]. However, it does not strongly suggest that drinking non-dairy milk causes children to be shorter.

Point 2: Almond milk is a good substitute for cow milk for infants [6]. A study pointed out that infants who were allergic to dairy (or cow milk) were given almond milk and reported better growth outcomes than infants who were given either a specialized non-dairy protein formula or a soy-based formula.

Point 3: Constipation is an issue seen in infants or toddlers with cow milk allergy and soy milk or plant-based milk is known to relieve the symptom.[7]. It was also found that dairy formulas cow milk can worsen symptoms in children with chronic constipation [8].

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Point 4: According to NHS (The National Health Service, UK), it is safe to give unsweetened fortified cow milk alternatives, such as soy, almond and oat milk drink to your child from the age of one [9].According to WHO vegan milk will need to be fortified with iron, zinc, calcium, vitamin B12.

Point 5: Several studies and health experts point out that alternatives should not be offered as a main drink for your child until at least two years of age unless discussed with a child dietician or paediatrician [10].

Point 6: For children with allergies who require a hypoallergenic formula (hypoallergenic formulas are recommended by paediatricians for babies who have a problem digesting cow milk-based formula), it is recommended that this formula is continued on until two years of age [11]. As Boldsky Paediatrician Dr Rhea Eapen points out, "cow milk protein allergy peaks during infancy(1.5-3 per cent) and by six years of age it is 1 per cent. Overall 35 per cent children who presented with chronic diarrhoea turned out to be cow milk protein allergy. If a child is allergic the dietary modification should be made by a Paediatrician based on symptoms and tests. Currently, the commonly employed treatment is hydrolyzed formula and soy milk-based formula. Due to factors like availability, affordability, palatability soy-based formula is tried first." Dr Rhea adds, "However, parents should know that children with cow milk protein allergy may have cross allergy with soy formula. So these decisions should be taken under expert advice."

Point 7: One study pointed out that unsweetened soya milk should be or is the first option for vegan infants [12].

So, if you wish to adopt a vegan lifestyle for your child, choose (after discussing with the paediatrician) fortified options that can balance the nutrients (calcium, vitamin B12 and, iodine) to the similar levels to those found in cow milk.

Note: Infants and young children under the age of five should not have rice drinks, because of the levels of arsenic they may contain.

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Choosing The Right Kind Of Vegan Milk For Your Baby

The above table provides a comparison of nutrient levels in cow milk and various plant-based milk alternatives.

In conclusion, it can be gathered that plant-based milk does not contain the same levels of energy, fat, or carbohydrate as cow milk. Most plant-based milk alternatives have also been proven to require fortification with various nutrients to meet a child's demand. [13].

In addition to the above-mentioned kinds of milk, pea milk, also called ripple milkis also a preferable option for your child as it has a protein profile like that of soy milk [14]. Hemp milkis also a good option as it is high in omega 3's which is key for children's growth and development is also is extremely easy on little digestive systems [15].

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On A Final Note…

Dr Rhea says, "Currently cow milk protein allergy is the one approved reason for use of alternative plant-based milk, usually temporarily. Further studies are being conducted to better understand the way non-dairy or vegan milk affects children's growth and development. In the case of nutritional value, health experts suggest that there is no added advantage to having other alternatives if the child can tolerate cow milk. As a parent, your child's health and safety is your number one priority, so before changing or altering your infant's or toddler's diet, talk to your child's paediatrician in order to make an informed decision.

Rhea EapenBehavioural and Neurodevelopmental Paediatrics
DNB Paediatrics
Rhea Eapen