Dairy free weaning; a beginner’s guide
For many parents, weaning is an exciting new chapter in their child’s development. But it can also be a time of uncertainty and anxiety – many of us don’t know what we are doing when it comes to getting our babies started on solids! Either way, finding out that your child has an allergy to dairy (cow’s milk protein allergy) is likely to change your experience dramatically. Dairy free weaning can still be a fun and enjoyable experience, you just need the right information, support and preparation.
This guide to dairy free weaning will cover:
- Getting started with dairy free weaning
- Nutrients to watch out for in a dairy free diet
- Label checking and ‘may contain’ warnings
- Avoiding cross contamination when cooking and preparing food
- Introducing other potential allergens
- Dairy free alternatives for milk free weaning
- Dairy free weaning recipe ideas
In this article I am sharing all the information you need to know to get prepared for dairy free weaning. This includes practical info for getting started, nutrients to watch out for and tips for introducing other common allergens. I’ve also included advice on the dairy free alternatives you’ll need, and lots of dairy free weaning meal ideas.
This article is not intended to replace individualised medical advice. If you’re under a dietitian, then they will give you advice about which foods to start with and how.
Getting started with dairy free weaning
General guidance about readiness for weaning, how & when to progress up to 3 meals a day, and different approaches (purees, baby led weaning with finger foods or a combination of both) all still apply when you are weaning dairy free. The NHS Start 4 Life website has some helpful information on all of these weaning basics.
One thing which may be different is the speed and structure with which you introduce new foods. Babies with cow’s milk protein allergy are at higher risk of having other food allergies such as an egg allergy, so it’s worth being mindful of this when introducing new foods. You may already suspect there are other allergies at play if your baby’s symptoms had not fully resolved when removing dairy.
Introducing new foods steadily but in a structured way can help you quickly narrow down the cause if you do start noticing symptoms. Some dietitians recommend trialling each new food for three days, whereas others suggest one new food a day, with three days for the top 14 allergens.
Whatever speed you go at, you should keep track by using a weaning journal, or simply use the notes function on your phone. If you do notice any symptoms then write down the date and time they appeared. Make sure you take photos – or even videos. This will be extremely helpful when talking to your GP or allergy team.
Keep it simple
My advice when starting is to focus on what your baby can eat, and to start off by keeping it really simple. If your baby has a dairy allergy then fresh fruit and veg, meat and fish, pasta & rice, potatoes are all on the menu. Many of the foods which are commonly recommended as first foods are dairy free anyhow. For example, the Start 4 Life website suggests “you can start weaning with single vegetables and fruits – try blended, mashed, or soft cooked sticks of parsnip, broccoli, potato, yam, sweet potato, carrot, apple or pear”.
If you are making purees, you can use expressed breast milk or your child’s dairy free formula. It’s also fine to use other plant based milks for cooking – there is a whole section on choosing a diary free milk below!
As you move on from first foods, you will need to find other alternatives to dairy such as plant based yoghurts and cheese. I have included information on all of this below, along with dairy free meal ideas and tips on checking labels for allergen information.
Nutrients to watch out for in a dairy free diet
In addition to standard nutritional guidance for weaning, there are some key nutrients you will need to be mindful of in your child’s diet when you are weaning milk free. These are:
These needs can largely be met by choosing appropriate fortified dairy alternatives (including milks, yoghurts and cheeses). However, plant based dairy alternative products tend to be less good at providing protein, energy (calories) and fats in comparison to dairy. These are things you will need to make sure you are including in your child’s diet in other ways.
Scroll down to the section about dairy alternatives for weaning for further information and suggestions for calcium & vitamin fortified products.
Label checking and may contains
In the UK, all prepackaged food needs to have a full ingredients list with any of the top 14 allergens emphasised. This emphasis can be by bold or coloured font, or underlining the word. If an ingredient is in a different form but contains one of the top allergens then this must be specified clearly – the example below shows the labelling of whey powder, which is derived from cow’s milk.
Water, Vegetable Oils (37%) [Rapeseed Oil, Palm Oil], Olive Oil (22%), Whey Powder (from Milk), Salt (1.1%), Emulsifier (Mono- and Diglycerides of Fatty Acids), Stabiliser (Sodium Alginate), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate), Colour (Carotenes), Flouring, Vitamin A, Vitamin D.
You should get in the habit of checking every label, every time. Milk can hide in the most unlikely of products! On top of this, unfortunately manufacturers can – and do – change their ingredients without notice. So, you can never assume ingredients are unchanged. At first this may be time consuming but you will become very skilled at it!
What about ‘may contain’ dairy labelling?
When you are checking labels you will start to notice variations of ‘may contain dairy’ warnings on some products which have no dairy on the ingredients list. This is called precautionary labelling, and is a total pain for people with allergies! The reason it’s a pain is that it’s so broad, it doesn’t tell you what you actually need to know. At the moment this is voluntary labelling, and there is little guidance on how to implement it.
If a food is produced in the same factory as something containing dairy then often manufacturers will use may contain labelling, even if the risk of cross contamination is miniscule. And because it is voluntary, a product with no such warning may have the exact same risk. In fact if you have any dairy products in your kitchen, then anything you make in the kitchen would technically fall into the ‘may contain’ category.
In practice, many children with CMPA eat foods labelled ‘may contain’ with no problems. However, if you are in any doubt about this you should have a discussion with your child’s medical professional – and this is particularly true if your child has ever experienced an extremely serious reaction to an allergen. Excluding ‘may contains’ from your child’s diet is very limiting, so it needs to be an informed balance between that and the risk of harm to your child, which is a very individual decision
Avoiding cross contamination when cooking and preparing food
Unless you’re totally removing your child’s allergen from the house then you will need to be careful about cross contamination. Once you get in the habit, then avoiding cross contamination is easy. But until it becomes second nature, you will have to keep reminding yourself!
When I touch an allergen, think of it like having honey on my fingers – a little bit (or sometimes a lot) will come off on everything I touch, until I have properly washed it off.
If others in the house are still eating the allergen, make sure you
- Use separate chopping boards and knives, and clean thoroughly after each use
- Wash hands thoroughly after handling the allergen
- Clean any kitchen surfaces which have come into contact with the allergen
- Keep any food containing the allergen in a well sealed contained that is clearly labelled
A common source of cross contamination is butter knives being dipped into jams and spreads! It’s best to get into the habit of removing jams and spreads from the jar with a clean teaspoon to avoid this.
Introducing other potential allergens
Current guidance is that it is best not to delay the introduction of potential allergens when weaning. In fact, the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology (BSACI) has identified that a certain group of higher risk children could benefit from earlier introduction (between 4 and 6 months) of egg and peanut. This higher risk group includes children with eczema and those who already have another food allergy. Early introduction should ideally be done with support from a medical professional. I would highly recommend reading Preventing Food Allergy In Your Baby: Information for Parents by BSACI for further information on how to approach this.
Here are my top practical tips for getting prepared to introduce other potential allergens:
- Do not test food on your baby’s skin first to test for a reaction. In the past this has been suggested. However, it has now been established that this approach can actually cause an allergy – particularly in babies who have eczema. Professor Adam Fox, former head of BSACI, explains that “a food allergy develops due to the exposure of the immune system in the skin to foods the infant has yet to eat”.
- Be familiar with signs and symptoms of allergic reaction, especially anaphylaxis. Although it’s unlikely to happen, you will feel more confident if you know what signs you are looking out for.
- Start with a small amount.
- Time it for when your baby is otherwise well. If they are already under the weather, it is difficult to know if any symptoms are a potential reaction, or related to the original illness.
- Introduce the new food early in the day. That gives you time to monitor for a reaction – much better to do that during the day than find yourself worrying after bedtime.
- Make sure you are dressed when introducing a potential allergen!! This is actually a serious point – lots of us have breakfast in our pyjamas. In the unlikely event that your child does have a reaction you need to be dressed and ready to deal with it.
- Leave at least 3 days between introducing different potential allergens, to give you time to spot any delayed non-IgE reactions. Don;t introduce any other new foods during this time.
If you have a specific reason to suspect that your child has additional allergies then you should talk to a medical professional before introducing that food.
Dairy free alternatives for milk free weaning
Dairy free weaning can be daunting, but once you’ve found good alternatives for the basics – milk, butter, yoghurt and cheese – you will feel a lot more prepared.
The products I suggest below don’t contain dairy in the ingredients list. I regularly review this, but always double check as ingredients can change without warning. Also note that some might have a ‘may contain milk’ warning – see above for further information on this.
Because my children – like many who have CMPA – are allergic to soya, I keep everything on this website soya free. However, if your child can tolerate soy, then soya milk and yoghurts will also be a good option for you in addition to my suggestions below.
Dairy free milk for weaning
One option is to use expressed breastmilk or your child’s dairy free formula to mix into foods. However, other alternative milks can be used in cooking and on cereal from 6 months. If you struggle to express, or your baby is not too keen on their formula, this can be a big help!
There are many dairy free alternative milks available now. Oat, almond, coconut, hemp – even pea! Using a range of dairy free milks can be a good way to add some variety in, so don’t feel the need to stick to just one.
When choosing which alternative milks to use for dairy free weaning there are some key things to look for. Firstly, you need to make sure that you are choosing calcium & vitamin fortified versions. Some are also Iodine fortified, which is ideal.
You also want to look for unsweetened milks with no added sugar. Ideally you want higher levels of protein and calories but, unfortunately, many alternative milks are not a great match for these compared to cow’s milk. This is something that needs to be made up for in other areas of your child’s diet.
You can find a helpful nutritional comparison of some of the main dairy free milks on the SR Nutrition website.
Which dairy free milks are not suitable for weaning?
The following plant based milks are not suitable for children with dairy allergies:
❌ Lactose free milk – children with dairy allergies are allergic to the protein in cow’s milk, not lactose. Lactose free milk still contains the protein, so is not suitable.
❌ Rice milk – this has high levels of arsenic and should not be given to children under 5.
❌ Goat and sheep’s milk – the British Dietetic Association states that “animal milks, such as sheep’s and goat’s milk, are not usually suitable. They contain similar proteins to cow’s milk, so are likely to trigger symptoms.”
❌ Organic plant based milks – these are not usually fortified with calcium or vitamins.
Dairy and soy free yoghurts for milk free weaning
There is now plenty of choice when it comes to dairy free yoghurts. They tend to be oat, almond or coconut based.
For babies and children, you ideally want a yoghurt that is low in sugar and fortified with calcium, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. My post on the best dairy & soy free yoghurts for weaning shows products which tick both the fortified and low sugar boxes!
Butter alternatives for dairy free weaning
I find it useful to have a spreadable and a block butter alternative. I have tried a LOT and here’s my pick of the tastiest:
Spreadable butter alternatives:
- Pure olive spread and Pure dairy free Buttery taste – both contain Vitamins A, D, E & B12
- Naturli – In my opinion, the closest to a true buttery taste! Be aware it contains almond
- Flora natural dairy free – this is rich in Omega 3
Block butter dairy free alternatives:
- Stork baking block – the original, and very reliable, alternative for baking!
- Naturli spreadable – delicious buttery taste. Be aware it contains almond
- Flora Plant block – available in salted & unsalted
- Vioblock – contains Vitamins D2, B1, B2, B6, B12 & Folic Acid
As well as being used for spreading and baking, these butter alternatives are good for stirring through pasta and veg. This can be particularly useful if you are trying to increase your child’s calorie intake.
Dairy free cheese alternatives
The dairy & soy free cheese options have exploded in the last few years! Increasingly the cheese alternatives are calcium fortified, and these are the ideal choice. Dairy free cream cheese alternatives are also useful for weaning, although most of these are not fortified. They can be spread on rice cakes/crackers, pancakes and in sandwiches. They can also be used in cooking and even for making desserts. The range is growing – and some are very tasty!
My post about dairy free cheese for babies and toddlers has lots of information about the different products available and which are fortified, along with lots of serving suggestions. It also outlines some nutritional factors to look out for, such as salt levels and protein content.
Dairy & soy free bread
If your little one is allergic to soy as well as dairy, you might be surprised to discover that finding suitable bread is a challenge. Unfortunately the majority of supermarket breads contain soy flour. I’ve put together a list of the best soy free bread available in UK supermarkets to help you find one that is suitable.
Dairy free weaning recipe ideas
Here are a few dairy free weaning ideas to get you started! All of these are suitable for baby led weaning, but can also be mashed/pureed if you are taking that approach.
I keep ideas on this website free from dairy, egg and soy, so everything on the list below is free from these. However, if your child is not allergic to egg and you are trying to include it regularly in their diet, scrambled eggs on toast, omelettes and hard boiled eggs are all great & easy options!
- Porridge, made with plant based milk. Regular porridge oats are fine, but you can whizz them up in a food processor first for a finer texture, if you prefer.
- Mix the toppings up with different fruits, chia seeds, smooth nut butters, etc
- Dairy and egg free pancakes.
- Crumpets (always check ingredients) or toast fingers. Topping ideas include chia jam, mashed banana, smooth nut butters & mashed avocado.
- Breakfast muffins e.g. these vegan banana & oat muffins.
- Many cereals are dairy free, and some are also fortified with vitamins and iron. For babies, choose lower sugar options such as weetabix/oatibix, shredded wheat, multigrain cereals, Kallo rice puffs. Mix up the alternative milk you use for a bit of variation.
- Dairy free yoghurt – or a yoghurt sundae!
- Vegan French toast
- Two ingredient banana and oat biscuits – Mash up 1 large banana and 90g rolled oats. Mix well and form into 8 balls. Place on a lined baking tray and gently press down into biscuit shapes. Bake for 15 mins until golden brown in an oven preheated at 180°C / 160°C fan.
- Carrot cake cookies
- Sweet potato oaty bites
- Rice or oat cakes with hummus, smooth nut butter or dairy free cream cheese.
- Sweet potato bread sticks
- Gluten free sweetcorn fritters
For 4 weeks of weekday dinner ideas, you can download my free meal plan by clicking here! Here’s a selection of our favourites:
- Quick and easy egg free fish cakes
- Creamy avocado pasta
- Dairy free fish pie
- Jacket potato bar – fillings options include tuna, baked beans, mashed avocado, hummus, tuna & sweetcorn mix
- Butternut squash vegan mac and cheese
- Roasted salmon, sweet potato wedges & steamed broccoli florets
- Egg free meatballs
- Topped banana slices – Thickly slice up a banana, and spread each slice with a thin layer of smooth nut butter. Then top with whipped up dairy free cream, a blob of yoghurt, or sprinkle with desiccated coconut.
- Chocolate, avocado and banana mousse
- Banana & raspberry ‘nice cream’
- Dairy free custard (I recommend Oatly) with tinned peaches or stewed apple
- Baked crumpet pudding
- Dairy free yoghurt, by itself or with chopped/pureed fresh fruit stirred through
- Dairy free rice pudding (sweeten with maple syrup rather than honey)
- Oat, almond & blackberry crumble
I hope you’ve found this guide to the basics of dairy free weaning helpful.
Drop me a comment below and let me know! And of course, if you have any tips to add I would love you to share them.
If weaning is not going to plan and you are struggling, you might want to check out this post about how to get extra support. This includes a link to free dietitian service run by Allergy UK, specifically for those with children under 5 who have not been referred for dietitian support.
You may also be interested in:
- The basics of cow’s milk protein allergy
- The best cook books for dairy and egg free weaning
- Healthy fats to support baby & toddler weight gain
- A parent’s guide to adrenaline auto-injectors
- The Allergy Companion’s guide to eating out with food allergies
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