What should I do if my child has a milk allergy?

a profile photo of Louise McKenna
Specialist Paediatric Dietitian at Cromwell Hospital
22 February 2022
Next review due February 2025

Cow’s milk allergy is one of the most common food allergies in babies and young children. Here I talk about how to spot a milk allergy and how you can keep your child safe and healthy if they have one.

older woman and child looking at restaurant menu

What causes a milk allergy?

A milk allergy is caused by a reaction to the proteins in cow’s milk. For this reason, it’s also sometimes called cow’s milk protein allergy. It’s different to lactose intolerance, a condition caused by a problem digesting lactose (the sugar in milk). Some children have both a milk allergy and lactose intolerance.

Some babies and children are at a higher risk of getting a milk allergy. This includes those with a skin condition called eczema (especially if the eczema is severe), and those who already have another food allergy.

What are the symptoms of a milk allergy in children?

Symptoms of a milk allergy can include:

  • skin problems such as itchy skin or a rash
  • digestive problems such as an upset tummy and being sick
  • an itchy or runny nose

These symptoms can begin straight after your child has milk, but sometimes they might take days to develop. If you think your child has a milk allergy, book an appointment with a doctor as soon as possible.

Some children will have a very serious (anaphylactic) allergic reaction to milk. This is a medical emergency. Call 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance if your child:

  • is struggling to breathe or breathing noisily (wheezing)
  • is coughing
  • becomes pale and floppy
  • feels dizzy
  • has a swollen tongue

Can I still breastfeed if my baby has a milk allergy?

Yes. But if you’re breastfeeding and your baby is diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy you may need to cut dairy out of your own diet. This is because the protein in cow’s milk can get into your breastmilk. If you have to cut out dairy, speak to a doctor or dietitian for advice. They can make sure you are still able to get all the nutrients your body needs.

What formula is best for babies with milk allergies?

If you’re not breastfeeding and your baby is diagnosed with a cow’s milk allergy, they will be prescribed a type of formula milk called hypoallergenic formula. You will usually continue with a hypoallergenic formula until your child is two.

What foods should my child avoid if they have a milk allergy?

If your child has a milk allergy, they will usually need to avoid all foods that contain milk. Milk can be found in lots of different foods including:

  • all dairy products, such as butter, cheese, yoghurt and cream
  • creamy sauces, dressings and soups
  • some cakes, pastries and biscuits
  • ice cream, chocolate and fudge
  • some processed foods such as certain sausage rolls and fish fingers
  • some types of bread
  • some breakfast cereals

You should check the labels of all the foods you buy to make sure they don’t contain milk. By law, all pre-packaged food sold in the UK that contain milk must clearly list it in the ingredients, no matter how small the amount. Ingredients can sometimes change, so make sure you check the label each time you buy a product.

You can often find milk-free versions of foods in the “free-from” section of a supermarket or in health food stores. But make sure you still double-check the label.

When eating in a restaurant or ordering takeaway foods it’s important to let the staff know about your child’s allergy.

What can I use in place of milk?

If your child can’t have cow’s milk, don’t give them other animal milks such as goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. Instead, choose fortified milk alternatives, such as soya milk.

Make sure these have added calcium to support your child’s bone health and general development. If you can, try to find alternatives that had added iodine too. Usually, milk alternatives can’t be used as your child’s main drink until they are two years old. Speak to a doctor or dietitian if you’re not sure.

You should also avoid giving rice milk to your child before they are four and a half years old. This is because it contains a small amount of arsenic that can be very harmful to small children.

Can my child eat baked milk?

Maybe. The foods your child needs to avoid will depend on the type of reaction they have to milk. Some children can have small amounts of fresh cow’s milk. Others can only have cooked or processed cow’s milk. But for some children, having even very small amounts of cow’s milk may cause a serious reaction.

Your child’s doctor, dietitian or allergy specialist will help you to work out whether they can include some types of milk in their diet. It’s very important that you don’t test this yourself at home without the support of a healthcare professional.

Can a child outgrow their milk allergy?

Yes. Many children outgrow their allergy to cow’s milk. Your child’s GP or allergy specialist will help to support you and your child to have a healthy balanced diet. They can also help you to start adding cow’s milk into your child’s diet if they feel it’s safe to do so.

Coping with your child's milk allergy

It can be worrying to find out that your child has an allergy. But with the right information and planning you can help to keep your child safe and well. Remember that your child’s medical team are all there to support you and your child.

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available to you and your loved ones when you need it.

a profile photo of Louise McKenna
Louise McKenna
Specialist Paediatric Dietitian at Cromwell Hospital

    • Does my child have a cow's milk allergy? Allergy UK., published 16 February 2022
    • When should I suspect cows' milk allergy? NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., revised August 2021
    • Scenario: Suspected cow's milk allergy? NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., revised August 2021
    • Cow’s milk allergy: The facts. Anaphylaxis Campaign., published May 2019
    • Milk allergy: Food fact sheet. British Dietetic Association., published 22 December 2021
    • Advice on safe levels of arsenic in rice and rice milk. Food Standards Agency., updated 18 September 2018

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