One of the things I hear many allergy parents struggle with is how to wean their dairy allergic infant to a non-dairy milk. Weaning is a large undertaking for any mom, but it becomes more complicated when the traditional dairy milk is not an option.
Will my child like non-dairy milk? Is the nutrition the same? Are there any long term health implications for not getting dairy milk? Are there any long term health implications from using one of the replacements? How do I decide which milk to give my infant? How do I serve it? Why isn't this in the owner's manual? And exactly where is that owner's manual anyway?!?
Relax mama. You can do this. First, talk to your allergist and find out if there are any non-dairy milks you should avoid. It is likely they will advise you to avoid nut milks for now, but make sure to have this conversation. Don't assume.
Next, talk to your pediatrician. Ask what they know about the nutrition of non-dairy milks on the market. It is likely that their knowledge is not adequate to provide solid guidance. They may refer you to a dietician for further discussion. BEFORE you meet with ANY dietician, please call ahead and find out if they have experience dealing with food allergies. I have met many dieticians who are woefully uneducated about food allergies, and the advice they gave was outdated and could even have been detrimental to my allergic kiddo. (Not that I have a personal bias. Nope. Not me.)
Now that I've got the standard ask a real doctor talk out of the way I can share my own insight. Granted, it is my opinion, based on knowledge I've gathered over the years and experience with food allergic kids. My nutrition knowledge is vast, but my paperwork to back that up is limited. ;)
First: pretend you are weaning to dairy milk. Think about what milk you would wean to and why. Most moms wean to whole milk because developing brains and bodies need a bit more fat than other milks can offer. When looking at replacements, chose one that has some naturally occurring fats.
I don't know a single mom that has weaned her child from breast milk to chocolate milk. Not. One. Whole milk is free of added sugar. When looking at a replacement, please do not assume that your child will not like the flavor of non-dairy milk. Babies have nothing to compare this new food to, so they will be more accepting of whatever you pick. Look for a replacement that is free of added sweetener. This can be in the form of cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, brown rice syrup, or any other sweetener. If it has added sugar, put it back on the shelf!
Lastly, think about the nutrition inherently present in each choice. Cow milk is not standardly enriched with a lot of extra vitamins, it has nutritional value built into it. Don't chose a milk that is low in nutritional content naturally. Keeping that in mind, some enhancement will be there. Look for a milk that does have calcium, a bit of fat, and an bit of protein. Not a ton, milk is not loaded with protein despite our current thoughts about it. Just a bit.
Now you have the tools to make your own decision about what milk to chose.
My first preference is unsweetened coconut milk. SoDelicious makes a fabulous one in the dairy case. It is organic, which I love, and I trust their production practices to provide coconut milk free of cross contamination. I do not have the same confidence in some of the other products on the market. In addition, coconut milk is higher in healthy fats than many non-dairy milks, which is god for developing brains. There is also some research that suggests that coconut milk may provide additional immune support, which is always a bonus!
Hemp milk would be the runner up. It has a stronger flavor than coconut milk, but has a lot of inherent nutritional quality. High in healthy omegas that are good for developing brains, trace amounts of protein and fat round out this choice. Hemp is also a food with very low incidence of allergy, making it ideal for those with multiple allergies.
The only milk that I do not advocate for is rice milk. Rice milk has a very mild flavor that many people adapt easily to, but it is low in nutrition in its natural state. This means all the oomph in rice milk is from enhancement, and you can give your kiddo vitamins on your own! In addition, rice is naturally high in arsenic, which our bodies can not process, meaning it builds up over time. High amounts are bad, so I prefer not to start building the arsenic supply in infancy.
Some tips to encourage your kiddo to drink up:
- Serve any milk warm. Breast milk is not chilled, so infants often adapt to warm milks more easily.
- If you must try a flavor, try unsweetened vanilla first to avoid added sugar
- You can use different milks to drink and to cook with, to alter the nutritional diversity in the diet
- Always cook with an unsweetened milk to avoid giving an off flavor to savory dishes
For a bit more insight on non-dairy milks and their nutrition, see here. (Flax milk and sunflower milk are not included in this review, nor is cashew milk.)
Still struggling? Have helpful advice or tips to share? Let me know below!