- On April 22, 2019
In the first several months and years of your child’s life, you are doing everything you can to make sure he or she has all of the food and nutrients to grow up strong and healthy. These great intentions may result in desperation when picky eaters seem to only want milk or cheese.
It’s only natural
Many moms choose to introduce cow’s milk following breastfeeding because it helps supply energy and protein in a similar way baby was used to with breastfeeding or formula. Cow’s milk can be a great source of protein and calcium, but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Infants and toddlers are used to the sweet taste of breast milk or formula and can gravitate towards that sweetness found in cow’s milk or comparable plant-based milks. When moms see their kids guzzling down milk and turning their heads to other foods, they might spend all day filling up their bottles to make sure the child receives enough protein to keep growing.
Similar to if you only ever ate cheese cubes for every meal, infants and toddlers lacking variety in their diets can miss out on a number of vitamins and minerals they need to thrive. One of the most serious risks these milk lovers face is low iron levels or iron deficiency anemia. Infants and toddlers with low iron are at risk of problems with neurodevelopment, language skills, fine motor skills, mental health problems, attention, and can be more vulnerable to infection1, 2.
What does that have to do with milk?
High milk or dairy consumption can affect your child’s body in various ways:
- If your child is filled up on just milk, he or she will not have any more room to eat anything else such as vitamin-packed fruits and veggies2.
- Even if you are getting enough iron in your diet normally, too much calcium can steal the show and lower iron levels back down to where it can be dangerous1.
- Too much protein intake boils down to excess calorie intake, which may cause kids to build up extra fat mass, even up to 10 years of age3.
*slowly puts milk back on the shelf*
You don’t have to say goodbye to milk! It is a great source of protein, calcium, and nourishment for your growing child. It is just important to keep an eye on how much milk he or she is actually drinking. Children ages 18-36 months only need about 500 milligrams of calcium per day, which comes out to about 16 ounces or a little less than 2 cups of milk. When they get a little older, 1-3 year olds need around 700 milligrams (~2.5 cups)4. As babies become toddlers, they continue developing coordination and motor skills, which allow them to advance from sucking a bottle to sipping from age-appropriate cups. Staying in tune with your babies and encouraging transition to a cup can help them regulate their milk consumption5. By this point, they are likely professionals at drinking from a bottle and may guzzle extra milk down before they realize they are full.
What about iron?
Try switching up your child’s plate with iron rich foods also packed with other essential vitamins and minerals. Although animal based or “heme” iron sources such as fish, poultry, eggs, and meat are best absorbed by the body, plant based or “non-heme” iron sources such as spinach, chickpeas, lentils, sweet potatoes, broccoli, apricots, and kale can also serve as great sources of iron2,6. Vitamin C also helps the body absorb iron, so consider serving foods such as citrus fruits, tomato, or red/yellow/orange peppers alongside iron-rich foods to boost absorption6.
As mentioned before, calcium and iron have a little bit of a power struggle. Because of this, it can be beneficial to space out when your child is drinking milk or calcium-rich foods from when they are eating iron-rich foods. This gives their body the best chance to soak up the nutrients they need from each one2.
If you notice your child appears paler, more irritable, or has a worse appetite than normal and suspect he or she may be iron deficient, consider speaking with your pediatrician or dietitian to make sure your baby is getting everything he or she needs2.
Pay attention to how much milk your child is drinking to monitor for calcium or protein overload, encourage variety in his or her meals to encourage nutrients like iron, and speak with your dietitian if you have any concerns about your child’s food or nutrient intake.
Written by: Jordan Da Silva, MS
Dietetic Intern, Lenoir-Rhyne University
Graduation Date: May 2019
University of Georgia, MS in Foods and Nutrition, BS in Nutrition Science
- Kerling, E. H., Souther, L. M., Gajewski, B. J., Sullivan, D. K., Georgieff, M. K., & Carlson, S. E. (2016). Reducing Iron Deficiency in 18-36-months-old US Children: Is the Solution Less Calcium? Matern Child Health J, 20(9), 1798-1803. doi:10.1007/s10995-016-1982-4
- Subramaniam, G., & Girish, M. (2015). Iron deficiency anemia in children. Indian J Pediatr, 82(6), 558-564. doi:10.1007/s12098-014-1643-9
- Jen, V., Braun, K. V. E., Karagounis, L. G., Nguyen, A. N., Jaddoe, V. W. V., Schoufour, J. D., . . . Voortman, T. (2018). Longitudinal association of dietary protein intake in infancy and adiposity throughout childhood. Clin Nutr. doi:10.1016/j.clnu.2018.05.013
- Institute of Medicine. (2011). Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs): Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Elements. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56068/table/summarytables.t3/?report=objectonly
- Sutcliffe, T. L., Khambalia, A., Westergard, S., Jacobson, S., Peer, M., & Parkin, P. C. (2006). Iron depletion is associated with daytime bottle-feeding in the second and third years of life. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 160(11), 1114-1120. doi:10.1001/archpedi.160.11.1114
- American Red Cross. (2019). Iron Rich Foods. Retrieved from https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/blood-donation-process/before-during-after/iron-blood-donation/iron-rich-foods.html