The Nutritional Benefits of Coconut Milk for Babies

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on July 5, 2017Written by Tanya Snyder

Coconut Milk

Coconuts are all the rage these days.

Celebrities are investing in coconut water, and all of your yoga friends are drinking it after Savasana. Coconut oil has gone from junk food pariah to a “superfood” in a few short years. Nutritionists now tout it as an amazing health food that can help you burn fat.

And coconut milk — that silky indulgence that makes your Thai curries so irresistible — is suddenly also a paleo staple.

But is it good for your baby?

Is coconut milk safe for baby?

Well, it depends. Using coconut milk in place of breast milk or formula is a no-go. Studies suggest that even cow’s milk on its own can lead to iron deficiencies and severe dehydration in babies. Coconut milk definitely doesn’t do the trick. There’s simply no substitute for the complete nutrition babies get from breast milk or infant formula.

Some would say there’s no substitute for breast milk, period, given its unparalleled immunity protection, allergy resistance, and a slew of lifelong health benefits for both mother and child.

Milk allergies

If breastfeeding isn't an option and you’re using a milk-based formula, watch out for symptoms of a dairy (or milk protein) allergy or intolerance in your baby. Symptoms of a dairy allergy or intolerance may include:

If your baby’s having trouble with dairy, your doctor may recommend a soy-based formula. If your baby’s allergic to soy, too, you can also find elemental formulas that are hypoallergenic.

In any case, your pediatrician will not point you to coconut milk as an alternative.

Coconut milk for toddlers

What about coconut milk for kids who have passed their first birthday? Could it take the place of cow’s milk in their lunchboxes?

Giving kids too much canned coconut milk can be dangerous. Canned coconut milk is wildly high in saturated fat. One cup of the liquid has 57 grams of fat and 255 percent of your daily allowance of saturated fat. That’s more than 10 times the saturated fat content of full-fat cow’s milk, which has 8 grams of fat total. While saturated fats found in plants differ somewhat than animal-based saturated fats, it’s still a good idea to keep saturated fat intake to a minimum.

Commercial brands of coconut milk beverages are diluted with water and contain far less fat than the canned variety. In terms of fat content, they’re more in line with low-fat cow’s milk. But they can also contain sweeteners and thickeners, like guar gum or carrageenan, which parents might want to avoid. The good news is that they’re fortified with nutrients like B12, iron, calcium, and vitamin D.

You can make your own coconut milk with grated coconut. But your homemade coconut milk wouldn’t be fortified with some of the vitamins and minerals you find in the boxed drink.

Dairy alternatives

If you're looking for an alternative to dairy, experts may recommend the nutritional offerings of soy over coconut milk (providing you don’t have a soy allergy). Other options include flax milk with added protein, or hemp milk. Unsweetened versions are always the best.

Coconut milk does get some credit for its high content of lauric acid, a fatty acid also found in breast milk (though in completely different proportions). Lauric acid helps protect against infections and bacteria. Your body also burns it faster than other fatty acids.

Coconut milk is also a good source of niacin, iron, and copper. If your older kids like coconut milk or coconut water, it’s fine to let them have it. But be aware that the canned and cold beverage versions of coconut milk don’t contain protein. They’re not equal replacements for dairy milk, which contains 8 grams of protein per cup.

The takeaway

If you’re turning to coconut beverages because your child’s allergic to cow’s milk, soy, or other nut milks, beware. Coconut is also a potential allergen, though the allergy isn’t nearly as common.

Despite its FDA classification as a tree nut, it’s technically a fruit in the cherry family, so your nut-allergic kid might not have a reaction to it.

Cooking with coconut milk is also fine — delicious, even! Once your child is eating solid foods, they’ll probably enjoy some sweet, mild coconut curry or a tropical coconut smoothie. 

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