Cow Milk Intolerance: What parents should know



As a mom and naturopathic doctor who is passionate about nutrition and wellness, I love introducing my children to healthy new foods. But both at home and in my practice, I have seen first-hand the effects of food intolerances, which can present with symptoms including rashes, digestive discomfort and chronic congestion.

As a baby and toddler, my own son suffered from the most common form of food intolerance: cow milk intolerance.

With this common condition on the rise, here’s what I think parents should know about cow milk intolerance and how they can improve their little one’s health and happiness by understanding the condition and choosing a cow milk alternative they can feel good about.

Cow milk intolerance is not the same as cow milk allergy

Many patients, parents, and even some health practitioners, use the terms allergy and intolerance interchangeably. This can be a dangerous mistake.

If your child has been diagnosed with CMPA (cow milk protein allergy), strict avoidance of all milk is recommended, as even a small amount in the diet can have serious health consequences.

According to the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition, only about 2-3% of children under the age of six are allergic to the proteins found in cow milk. The good news: if they suffer from cow milk intolerance (which affects a much larger group of children) alternatives, such as goat milk or goat milk formula, can help.

Several factors can cause cow milk intolerance

Cow milk intolerance occurs when the protein components (casein and whey) or other components of cow milk, such as the carbohydrate (lactose) and/or fat components[1] are digested poorly.

Unlike allergies, which can be tested for, there is no definitive test to diagnose cow milk intolerance, and the symptoms associated with it can vary widely – from immune system problems, to respiratory issues to digestive problems.[2]

There are many symptoms of cow milk intolerance

Symptoms can vary from child to child and can take days, weeks or even months to present. They may include:

  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Chronic nasal congestion or runny nose
  • Frequent ear infections
  • Skin rashes or reactions such as eczema
  • “Reflux” (or gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Colic or bloating
  • Feeding refusal or failure to thrive
  • Red umbilicus (in infants)
  • Allergic shiners, or dark circles around the eyes
  • Asthma or wheezing

Eliminating cow milk eliminates symptoms

Dr. Antonio Carroccio, a pediatric gastroenterologist, has done a great deal of work in characterizing the effects of cow milk intolerance in children. He found that in children with chronic constipation, elimination of cow milk resulted in normal bowel habits and promoted healing of the gastrointestinal mucosa (the lining of the gut).[3]

A 2002 meta analysis (a summary of many studies) investigated whether avoidance of cow milk can reduce the incidence of wheezing in children at high risk based on their family history. The study found that the risk of experiencing wheezing or asthma within the first year of life was reduced by 60% when cow milk was eliminated.[4]

Healthy alternatives are out there

I’ve personally treated many children whose symptoms cleared up after making the switch to goat milk (including my own son!), but since every child is different, I do recommend speaking with your doctor or naturopath if you are concerned about whether your little one’s symptoms stem from allergy or intolerance.

Does your little one suffer from food intolerance? How does your family deal with mealtime?

[1] Docena GH, Fernandez R, Chirdo FG, Fossati CA. Identification of casein as the major allergenic and antigenic protein of cow’s milk. Allergy. 1996 Jun;51(6):412-6.

[2] Ewing WM, Allen PJ. The diagnosis and management of cow milk protein intolerance in the primary care setting. Pediatr Nurs. 2005 Nov-Dec;31(6):486-93.

[3] Iacono G, Bonventre S, Scalici C, Maresi E, Di Prima L, Soresi M, Di Gesù G, Noto D, Carroccio A. Food intolerance and chronic constipation: manometry and histology study. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2006 Feb;18(2):143-50.

[4] Ram FS, Ducharme FM, Scarlett J. Cow’s milk protein avoidance and development of childhood wheeze in children with a family history of atopy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002;(3):CD003795.

Published on: September 11, 2014
About the Author
Photo of Dr. Kate Morrison ND

Dr. Kate Morrison is a board-certified naturopathic doctor and co-founder of Kabrita, a line of naturally easy to digest, gentle non-GMO goat milk foods that includes Toddler Formula and Goat Milk Yogurt and Fruit. She also contributes to Kabrita’s blog which promotes confidence and joy in parenting and nutrition.

Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.
No comments yet. Start the conversation!
Add your comment