Milk is known for being a go-to source for protein and calcium that kids need for a balanced diet and strong bones. Not only is it considered a healthy drink alternative but also, as a bonus, many kids ask for milk by name because it goes great with everything from cereal and sandwiches to cakes and cookies.
While milk seems to be packed full of goodness that everyone can get behind, pediatricians caution that it is possible to have too much of a good thing, including milk.
“Many parents think giving their child an extra glass of milk as a snack or with meals is fine, but it can actually make the child feel full so they don’t get all the nutrients they need at meal time,” said Dr. Katharine Wade, pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital Pediatrics in Fairlawn. “If continued over time, too much milk can also lead to low iron levels, stomach or digestion problems, as well as cavities since milk contains sugar.”
One contributor of too much milk consumption is many parents don’t realize there are recommendations for daily calcium intake, as well as for (cow’s) milk consumption.
How much is too much milk?
Infants younger than 1 year old shouldn’t have regular cow’s milk because it doesn’t have the nutrients a growing baby needs. It’s best to keep with breast milk or infant formula as a baby’s major source of nutrition during the first year. Additionally, cow’s milk protein can cause irritation in the digestion tract, leading to blood loss in stool.
- By age 1, a baby should be eating a variety of foods and can have about 3 cups or 24 ounces of cow’s milk per day.
- Kids between 1 and 2 years old still shouldn’t have more than 3 cups or 24 ounces of cow’s milk per day. At this age, whole milk is recommended because it helps provide the dietary fats kids need for normal growth and brain development.
- Toddlers and preschoolers can have 2-3 cups or 16-24 ounces of cow’s milk per day. After age 2, most kids can switch to low-fat or nonfat (skim) milk. All milk – from skim to whole to organic – contains about the same amount of calcium per serving and are fortified with Vitamin D.
- Adolescents and teens should consume 3 cups or 24 ounces per day to support the calcium they need for good bone health that will last far into adulthood.
Another common way kids consume too much milk, particularly for toddlers who are just learning to eat a variety of foods, is by filling up on milk at mealtimes to avoid the textures or tastes of new foods.“Milk shouldn’t be used as a substitute for other nutrient-rich foods,” said Dr. Wade. “Milk is very low in iron and the calcium found in it can actually decrease the body’s absorption of non-heme iron (iron from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts) by as much as 50%, which can lead to iron deficiency.”
In infants and preschoolers, iron deficiency anemia can cause developmental delays and behavioral disturbances, like decreased motor activity and problems with social interaction and paying attention.
If too much milk consumption is a problem for your child, Dr. Wade suggests trying simple cutbacks like offering half a glass of milk instead of a full glass, serving milk only with snacks or offering milk halfway through a meal rather than at the start to encourage a child to consume other foods first.
Since about 99% of calcium resides in bones and teeth, calcium-rich foods like milk, cheese and yogurt are good for kids’ diets. But, calcium doesn’t always have to come from cow’s milk. Dr. Wade suggests also offering nondairy foods that pack a calcium punch to meet calcium recommendations such as:
- White beans in soups, salads or entrees
- Slivered almonds or chickpeas on salads or cereals
- Calcium-fortified juice with breakfast or snack
- Calcium-fortified foods including breads and cereals
- Dark green, leafy vegetables such as broccoli, kale, collard greens or Chinese cabbage with meals
For optimal bone health, below is the recommendation for daily calcium intake from the Institute of Medicine (IOM):
- 1-3 years old: 700 milligrams
- 4-8 years old: 1,000 milligrams
- 9-18 years old: 1,300 milligrams
“As long as a child is getting the appropriate servings of calcium in their diet, there is no daily minimum of milk that’s required; rather there’s a daily maximum to keep in mind,” said Dr. Wade. “If your child is a milk lover, don’t discourage their love of the drink just be sure to monitor their intake and let them enjoy it at specific times instead of any time they ask for it.”