New research from Children of the 90s shows that the weight gain of infants given cow’s milk as a main drink in place of breast or formula milk before 12 months of age may be greater than that of breastfed infants.
Children who were fed 600ml (just over a pint) or more of cow’s milk each day at eight months of age put on weight faster on average and were heavier than breast-fed children right up to 10 years of age. The research also found that children who were fed 600ml or more of formula milk each day put on weight faster in infancy and were heavier than breast-fed children up to two and a half years of age. The amount, as well as the type, of milk fed to the infants were both important factors in how children grew.
Over 1,000 children enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children were studied. Their weight, height and body mass index (BMI) were measured 14 times from when they were born until they were 10 years of age.
The researchers compared the growth of children given cow’s milk as their main drink at eight months with those fed breast milk and those fed formula milk. All of the babies were already well established on solid foods (i.e. had been weaned). The researchers also looked at the amount of milk consumed comparing 600ml or more with less than 600ml each day. The maximum amount of milk recommended at this age is 600ml a day.
The researchers found that 13 per cent of parents/carers were feeding their child cow’s milk instead of breast milk or formula milk when their child was eight months of age although the official guidance is not to replace breast milk or formula with cow’s milk until a child is at least 12 months old.
Of the 1,112 children surveyed, 141 (12.7 per cent) were breastfed, 824 (74.1 per cent) were formula fed and 147 (13.2 per cent) were given cow’s milk as their only milk drink at the age of eight months.
Dr Pauline Emmett from the University of Bristol, who jointly led the research said:
"What this shows us is that giving lots of cow’s milk to children in late infancy can lead to those children gaining weight faster and having a higher BMI right throughout childhood when compared to breastfed babies. This could contribute to the development of childhood obesity and the health risks connected with that which can persist right through to adulthood. Parents need to be advised about reducing the volume of milk fed by bottle once infants are established on solids foods.
"Our finding reinforces the current Department of Health guidance which says that babies should not be given cow’s milk as their main drink before the age of 12 months."
David Hopkins, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian at Southampton Children’s Hospital and joint research lead said:
"This research clearly shows the benefits of breast feeding and where necessary, appropriate formula feeding during late infancy as opposed to using unsuitable alternatives such as cow’s milk. It should help to provide further guidance to mothers and health professionals alike regarding the type and volume of milk necessary in late infancy and early childhood to optimise a child’s nutritional status."