Cow’s Milk and Iron Deficiency: Why Cow’s Milk May Not Be Good For Your Child

As an expectant mother with persistently low haemoglobin levels, I was intrigued to discover from my own research that there is a link between cow’s milk and iron deficiency anaemia.

I grew up subscribing to the general wisdom that cow’s milk is a rich source of calcium and iron. I was even on the school milk programme, getting my daily dose of plain and flavoured milk in pyramid-shaped packs. Yet, after years of faithfully drinking milk, I am still iron deficient and borderline anaemic. When I looked up the literature, I discovered to my surprise just how much research there is that supports the finding that cow’s milk is associated with iron deficiency in children.

How can something conventionally regarded as indispensable to good health harm you?

Firstly, it has been found that for an infant under 6 months of age, over-consumption of milk irritates the intestines and causes the loss of blood in the intestinal tract. The exact reason for this blood loss is unclear, but it is postulated that the culprit is a particular protein found in the milk. Over time, this loss of blood stores results in iron deficiency. Thus, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a child be at least a year old before being given cow’s milk.

Secondly, milk’s lack of bioavailability makes it hard for the body to absorb the levels of iron required for optimum health, thus causing iron deficiency. In mild cases, iron deficiency has been associated with a decrease in attention span (and a rise in incidences of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), alertness and learning ability. If the iron deficiency is severe, it can lead to anaemia. Iron deficiency is also known to increase a child’s susceptibility to lead poisoning, especially for those living in older homes.

Thirdly, cow’s milk products are inherently low in iron, containing about only 0.1 mg per 8-ounce serving. When you compare this figure with the US Recommended Daily Allowance of 15 mg per day for an infant less than a year old, what it means is that an infant would need 150 servings of milk a day to get the required amount of iron! An over-reliance on milk as the primary source of iron also means that the child’s appetite for other iron-rich foods (which should form part of a balanced and healthy diet) is dampened.

What then is a conscientious parent to do? Thankfully, there are many good alternative sources of iron readily available commercially. Look out for them on your next visit to the supermarket:

For young children

  • Iron-fortified infant formula
  • Iron-fortified cereals

For the whole family

  • Liver and lean meats
  • Seafood such as sardines
  • Dried fruits, such as apricots, prunes and raisins
  • Nuts
  • Beans, especially lima beans
  • Green leafy vegetables, such as broccoli and spinach
  • Black strap molasses
  • Whole grains

The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that a young child can get iron deficiency anaemia if he is given cow’s milk too early, particularly if he is not given an iron supplement or iron-rich food. Most toddlers get all the calories and calcium they need from 16-24 ounces of milk a day, and no child requires more than 32 ounces of milk a day.

Making sure your child has a balanced diet is essential to his health and wellbeing as he grows. This includes a diet that contains adequate amounts of iron to help prevent iron deficiency and its associated problems.