Q. What are the benefits of feeding my baby goat's milk? I've heard it can improve digestion, especially in infants over one year old. Is this true?
A. I frequently advise goat's milk for patients in my pediatric practice, especially those who have digestive problems or who are unable to tolerate cow's milk. In infants who show an intolerance to cow's milk -- symptoms of this can include colicky abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, and facial rashes -- parents often report that many of these allergic reactions disappear or greatly improve after switching to goat's milk. Here are the reasons why goat's milk is more easily digested and less allergenic than cow's milk in many infants:
Less allergenic proteins. The protein clumps that are formed by the action of the stomach acids on the protein are called curds. The softer the curd, the quicker it passes through the stomach. Goat's milk protein forms a softer curd, which makes it easier to digest. This could be an advantage for infants who spit up a lot or who have gastroesophageal reflux (GER). Goat's milk contains only trace amounts of the allergenic protein found in cow's milk -- alpha-S1 casein. However, goat's milk and cow's milk both contain another type of allergenic protein, beta-lactoglobulin, which is why some infants who are allergic to cow's milk may also be allergic to goat's milk.
A more digestible fat. The fat globules in goat's milk are easier to digest because they contain a higher proportion of short and medium-chain fatty acids. It's a biochemical quirk that allows the intestinal enzymes to digest the fat easier. Cow's milk contains more of the longer-chain fatty acids that require more work for the intestines to digest.
Slightly less lactose. While both cow's milk and goat's milk contain the sugar lactose, goat's milk contains slightly less (4.1 percent versus 4.7 percent in cow's milk). It's possible that this is a slight advantage for infants who are lactose intolerant.
Cautions about goat's milk: The vitamin and mineral content of goat's milk and cow's milk are fairly similar, though goat's milk contains a bit more calcium, vitamin B6, vitamin A, potassium, niacin, copper, and the antioxidant selenium. On the other hand, cow's milk contains more vitamin B12 and much more folic acid. Since goat's milk contains less than ten percent of the amount of folic acid contained in cow's milk, it must be supplemented with folic acid. For this reason, be sure you get a goat's milk that is supplemented with folic acid, which the best brands usually are (If you're unsure of a good brand, I recommend Meyenberg goat milk to my patients.).
Also, be sure to buy goat's milk that's certified "free of bovine growth hormone (BGH) and antibiotics." Generally, the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend the use of goat's or cow's milk products in infants under one year because they can cause intestinal irritation and anemia. Infants under one year of age who are allergic to cow's milk-based formulas, soy formulas, or hypoallergenic formulas are sometimes put on goat's milk formula, but only with consultation from baby's doctor or a pediatric nutritionist.