Once babies are officially off the bottle or the breast, most parents transition their little ones to drinking milk on a daily basis. But does milk really do a little body good? And just how much do children have to drink? The USDA recommends that children ages 2 to 3 get two servings of dairy per day, children ages 4 to 8 get two-and-a-half servings, and kids ages 9 and older get three servings. To put that in perspective, one serving of dairy is 1 cup of milk, 1 ½ ounces of cheese and/or a small container of yogurt. But research shows that less may be more when it comes to cow’s milk: A 2012 study of 1,300 children, ages 2 to 5, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that 2 cups of milk may be the ideal maximum amount. Toddlers who consumed that much had a healthy balance of both vitamin D and iron. Children who drank 3 or more cups of milk had higher levels of vitamins D, but at a price: Their iron levels decreased since milk can affect iron absorption. The researchers did note one exception to the 2-cups-max rule: Children with dark complexions who didn’t receive supplemental vitamin D during the winter needed 3 to 4 cups of milk to maintain a healthy level of vitamin D. For the parents of picky eaters, milk can be a good source of protein: 1 cup of reduced-fat (2 percent) milk contains nearly 9 grams of protein, according to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. It’s also rich in calcium and fortified with hard-to-get vitamin D. But some research calls into question just how effective milk is at strengthening children’s (and adults’) bones and guarding against fractures later in life.

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A 2014 study on dairy consumption in adults found that the more milk women drank, the higher their risk of bone fractures. In addition, high milk consumption was also linked to a higher risk of death in both men and women. The researchers noted that sugars in milk, lactose and galactose, have an inflammatory effect and cause oxidative stress, which they theorize contributes to the increased risk of fractures and higher mortality rates. (The researchers also pointed out that both yogurt and cheese were associated with lower rates of fractures and mortality.) Other research links milk with weight gain. A large study of children ages 9 to 14, published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found that kids who drank 3 cups of milk per day had higher BMIs than kids who drank one or two glasses daily, even if the milk was 1 percent or skim.

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It’s not clear why low-fat milk would contribute to weight gain just as much as whole-fat milk, but some experts speculate that low-fat milk provides less satiety than whole milk, possibly making kids more apt to reach for high-calorie foods. What the experts say: Milk can play a beneficial role in children’s health and growth, which is why many pediatricians recommend giving little ones whole milk up until age 2 before switching to the low-fat version. “ Babies need the fat for nerve and brain development,” Frank Greer, MD, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Nutrition, told Parenting. What’s more, milk can help fill in some nutritional gaps for choosey kids. “Picky eaters may struggle to get enough protein and calories in their diets, and milk is an easy, nutrient-rich way to deliver those calories,” Jonathon Maguire, MD, a pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, told LiveScience.


By Rachel Grumman Bender from Yahooparenting