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Can milk cause digestive problems?
Q: I read that that too much milk is harmful for children and can cause stomach and digestive problems. Is this true? And, if so, how much milk is too much?
A: Yes, Jessica, too much milk can be harmful for children, but this doesn’t mean some milk is unhealthy. There are a number of problems that large amounts of milk can cause in small children. First of all, children who continue to drink any liquid other than water from bottles after 10 to 12 months of age—especially if they use the bottle for comfort—will drink more liquids in a day than the child using a cup. Large amounts of liquids will displace solid foods and decrease vitamin and mineral intake.

Additionally, if children are put to bed with a bottle, they are at risk of developing dental caries, or cavities, resulting in a condition called “bottle mouth,” which can cause eating difficulties later on. Obviously, juices and sweet drinks are the worst at bedtime, but milk contains enough milk sugar to corrode the teeth over time. Many children drink so much milk that they actually lose their appetites for foods on the plate, which can result in iron deficiency anemia. Still other children develop sensitivities to cow’s milk proteins, which can cause skin, breathing or digestive problems.

The article you read was probably referring to cow’s milk consumed by children younger than 1. The casein, or milk protein found in cow’s milk, is very difficult for babies younger than 12 months to digest and can cause bleeding and gastric distress. Additionally, some children develop gassy episodes following a large ingestion of milk because they may not have an adequate amount of lactase enzyme in the intestine to digest the lactose, or milk sugar. This frequently occurs after an illness, or when a child has had diarrhea or been on antibiotics. An appropriate amount of milk for a toddler is 16 ounces per day, by cup only. If your child develops any unusual symptoms after drinking milk, you should always contact your pediatrician.

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant