A pediatrician suspected that my son had leukemia. It was found that he was drinking too much cow’s milk.

  • During a routine checkup, my son’s pediatrician said he was concerned about how pale he looked.

  • More tests revealed that he was severely anemic, requiring iron transfusions.

  • It turned out that he had been drinking too much cow’s milk—almost double the recommended amount.

“The good news is your son doesn’t have leukemia!”

My child’s pediatrician called first thing on Friday morning to deliver the news. During a recent checkup, the doctor expressed great concern about Johnny’s pale complexion, which I attribute to having always lived in the Pacific Northwest and being the product of two very Irish parents.

He did a complete-blood-count panel, the results of which pointed to a severe iron deficiency. His hemoglobin level was between 4.5 and 5.6; The normal range for someone his age was 10.9 to 15. Her anemia was so bad that she simultaneously developed heart palpitations.

I was surprised when the doctor said she secretly feared leukemia, but Johnny looked so sick. Thankfully the culprit was not blood cancer but cow’s milk. He received his first iron transfusion immediately and his second and final transfusion the following week. He also started taking an iron supplement every other day.

Many people don’t know this, but too much milk can be harmful.

Johnny was born during the first year of the pandemic, so my stress levels were high for a long time. I was awaiting my eldest son’s inevitable autism diagnosis and adjusting to a new city after an interstate move. So when Johnny started drinking cow’s milk at age 1 and didn’t have much of an appetite for anything else, I didn’t try to fix his behavior. I kept pouring water to keep calm.

Johnny drank about 30 to 40 ounces of milk a day, much more than the 16 to 24 ounces recommended for his age group. I didn’t know that calcium could suppress iron absorption, so any iron that made it into her body would have been quickly trampled by the excess dairy.

I didn’t think milk could affect her so much

Sure enough, he was always in a sour mood, never well-rested, and prone to almost constant meltdowns. I thought that maybe he had prematurely started having terrible twos, or that he was growing up to be a cutest child, or that he was too on the autism spectrum.

Johnny was a colicky infant, so I found myself Googling whether colic could return in the toddler years. I suspected that she had drunk too much milk, which was filling her up, but I had no idea that excessive intake could do so much harm. After all, America has outpaced milk consumption for decades — I’m in the “Got Milk?” Advertisements on TV and billboards, and my dad always encouraged me to drink it to grow tall and strong.

Johnny’s hematologist said most parents are unaware that drinking too much milk can be a problem. We see our children every day, but rare visitors such as doctors or relatives may notice worrying physical changes in our little ones.

The hematologist also told me that most children are completely different people after recovering from anemia, which can cause headaches, weakness, fatigue, and a host of other maladies. Johnny constantly felt like garbage but had no way of telling me. My husband and I regret to admit that Johnny was moody when his heart was sore.

Within a month and a half of treatment, Johnny was cured of his heart murmur and anemia. Everyone in our lives noticed an immediate improvement in his demeanor. Now he has the desire and energy to eat, smiles at everyone, and talks eagerly to his stuffed animals—a stark contrast to when he used to start and end his days in tears.

For the first time in his short life, I feel like I’m finally getting to know the real Johnny.

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