Pros & Cons of Feeding Soy to Babies

Mother feeding baby with milk bottle
A baby feeding from a bottle. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

When you think of soy, you might associate the protein with vegetarian diets. Soybeans aren’t exclusive to meatless diet plans, however. With as much protein but with less saturated fat than animal sources, soy is gaining more prominence among health-conscious consumers. Soy has many benefits for adults, which raises the question of how soy-based formulas might affect babies. Learn the facts and discuss the possibility of soy with your child’s pediatrician before incorporating related products into a baby’s diet.

May Ease Milk Allergies

For the first 12 months of life, infants either drink breast milk or milk-based formula. After your child’s first birthday, a pediatrician will likely recommend a switch to whole cow’s milk. One challenge to this routine is that some babies are allergic to milk proteins. This can complicate traditional formula feeding and switching to cow’s milk after the first year. According to the KidsHealth website, up to 3 percent of U.S. infants have milk allergies. This can lead to uncomfortable symptoms in your baby like rashes and irritability. Soy-based formulas can potentially offer some of the same nutrients without the allergic reaction of milk.

Might Promote Allergies

In some babies, switching to a soy formula won’t entirely ease milk allergies. Dr. Frank Greer of the University of Wisconsin tells ABC News that there is a 10 percent to 14 percent chance of a cross-reactivity within proteins in both cow’s milk and soybeans. In other words, the risk of having an allergy to soy may be greater if your infant has a milk allergy. Soy may not alleviate allergy symptoms in all babies.

Soy for Lactose Intolerance

It’s important to distinguish lactose intolerance from milk allergies, as the two conditions are not the same. Lactose intolerance occurs when your baby cannot digest naturally occurring sugars in cow’s milk. This can cause extreme irritability and gastrointestinal side effects such as diarrhea. Soy formulas are primarily recommended for babies with lactose intolerance more than any other medical reason.

Long-Term Health Considerations

People who eat plant-based diets are statistically less likely to develop chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, compared with people who eat little plant foods, according to a 2010 article in "Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology." Such concerns might prompt you as a parent to start your baby off right with a healthy diet early in life. But MedlinePlus reports that few studies have been conducted on the safety of soy in young children, and the protein may even lead to side effects like stomach pain, diarrhea and lack of bowel movements. Due to the questions surrounding soy safety, pediatricians typically recommend soy for infants only if there is a medical issue present.

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