Milk Protein Allergy: What Are My Formula Options?

A milk protein allergy in infants is a serious problem. Both babies and mothers are impacted. If your baby has a milk protein allergy, it’s important to determine which feeding option will help them thrive.

Understanding Milk Protein Allergies in Infants

Up to three percent of babies are allergic to cow’s milk protein. This occurs when the body’s immune system perceives milk protein as harmful and sets off an allergic response.


A milk protein allergy most often happens in babies who are fed cow’s milk formula. In rare cases, though, it can occur in breast-fed babies. The allergy may be genetic, and many children outgrow it by age five.

What Are the Symptoms?

Symptoms of a milk protein allergy often take place within minutes to a few days of exposure to cow’s milk. Infants may be exposed through formula or the breast milk of mothers who ingest cow’s milk or products made from cow’s milk.

Allergy symptoms may be gradual or occur rapidly.


Symptoms with a gradual onset may include:

  • loose stools, which may be bloody
  • vomiting
  • gagging
  • refusing to eat
  • irritability or colic
  • skin rashes

Symptoms with a rapid onset may include:

  • wheezing
  • vomiting
  • swelling
  • hives
  • irritability
  • bloody diarrhea
  • anaphylaxis

How Is a Milk Protein Allergy Diagnosed?

No single test exists to diagnose a milk protein allergy. Diagnosis occurs after reviewing symptoms and going through a process of elimination to rule out other medical conditions. Tests may include:

  • stool test
  • blood tests
  • allergy tests, including skin prick or patch tests

Your doctor may recommend an elimination diet in which your baby is fed formula that is free from cow’s milk or have you eliminate cow’s milk from your diet if you are breast-feeding. Typically, this elimination diet will last for at least one week. Cow’s milk is then reintroduced to see if allergy symptoms return.

Breast-Feeding Is Best

When it comes to feeding your baby, breast-feeding is best. Breast milk is nutritionally balanced, offers protection against illnesses and infections, and reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Babies who are breast-fed are less likely to develop food allergies and even chronic diseases later in life.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast-feeding for at least the first 12 months of a child’s life. The World Health Organization recommends breast-feeding until a child is at least 2 years old.

If you’re breast-feeding and your child develops a cow’s milk allergy, you’ll need to make dietary changes. Eliminate dairy products, including:

  • milk
  • cheese
  • yogurt
  • cream
  • butter
  • cottage cheese

Milk protein is often hidden. It may be found in:

  • flavorings
  • chocolate
  • lunch meat
  • hot dogs
  • sausages
  • margarine
  • processed and packaged foods

Manufacturers are required to list potential allergens, including milk, on food product labels. Read labels carefully to determine if products you eat contain milk.

Formula Options

Not every woman is able to breast-feed. If your baby has a milk protein allergy and you’re unable to breast-feed, there are formula options that don’t contain cow’s milk.

  • Soy formula is made from soy protein. Unfortunately, some babies are also allergic to soy and may experience symptoms similar to cow’s milk allergy.
  • Extensively hydrolyzed formulas break cow’s milk protein down into small particles to make an allergic reaction less likely.
  • Babies who are unable to tolerate hydrolyzed formula may do well on an amino acid-based formula. This formula type is made of amino acids or protein in its simplest form.

Keep in mind that the more a formula is hydrolyzed, the less appetizing or tasty it may be for your baby.

Milk Banks

An alternative to formula for women who are not able to breast-feed is using a milk bank. Milk banks collect breast milk from carefully screened donors and distribute it to people in need. According to the National Milk Bank, donor milk is carefully screened for contaminants and pasteurized. If the donor consumed cow’s milk products, it’s possible for a baby to experience an allergic reaction. The risk is less than with traditional formula, however.


Milk banks are always looking for donors. If you’re interested in donating, contact the National Milk Bank, or ask your doctor for a referral.

Talking to Your Doctor

If your baby has symptoms of an allergy to milk protein, it may be hard to determine if the cause is a simple upset stomach or an allergy. Don’t try to diagnose the issue or change formulas yourself. Consult your doctor to get a proper diagnosis and to discuss treatment options. Help your doctor make a proper diagnosis with these tips:

  • Keep a record of your baby’s eating habits and symptoms.
  • If you breast-feed, keep a record of the foods you eat and how they impact your baby.
  • Learn about your family medical history, especially any food allergies.

You’re Not Alone

As a mother, it’s painful to see your child in distress, especially from something as natural as eating. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends or family members. You can also find an encouraging support group to help you develop coping strategies.


Knowing others are going through a similar situation is often enough to empower you to stay positive. Take comfort in the fact that many milk allergies can be controlled through dietary changes if you breast-feed or switch formulas. 

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