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The question: I've read that more than two glasses of milk a day can be bad for children, and even lower the iron in their bodies. Do you think it's safe to let my four-year-old continue to drink milk?

The answer: It is certainly safe for your child to continue to drink milk. At this age, I recommend two to three glasses of milk per day.

Milk and dairy products are a great source of protein. Equally important, milk is also an excellent source of vitamin D and calcium. These two essential nutrients are critical for normal growth and bone development, and they can be challenging to get in sufficient quantities from other food sources.

Unless a child needs extra calories, choosing 1-per-cent or skim milk is recommended in this age group. In my experience, conditions like cow's milk protein allergy and lactose intolerance are uncommon in toddlers and preschoolers. Fortunately, for those few children who can't tolerate cow's milk, alternatives like soy, almond and lactose-free beverages are now widely available.

But you are correct that milk is a poor source of iron and that ingesting too much cow's milk can lead to iron deficiency. In fact, drinking too much milk is the most common nutritional problem that I encounter in my clinic in toddlers between 12 months and three years of age. Children who drink more than 24 ounces (about 710 millilitres) of milk per day often have a very limited intake of solid foods, which can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies. Almost always, this is caused by infants drinking milk from a bottle past 15 months.

As such, I strongly recommend discontinuing all bottle feeding around the time of your child's first birthday. Children at this age should only be offered milk in a cup or sippy cup, at meal times and before bedtime. The practice of allowing toddlers to carry their sippy cup with them wherever they go – and allowing infants to take a bottle or sippy cup of milk to bed – should be avoided at all costs.

Iron deficiency should not be taken lightly. Possible complications of iron deficiency in children include anemia, growth retardation, learning problems and frequent infections.

Dr. Michael Dickinson is the head of pediatrics and chief of staff at the Miramichi Regional Hospital in New Brunswick. He's a staunch advocate for children's health in Atlantic Canada through his involvement with the Canadian Paediatric Society.

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