Milk anemia is a dangerous condition with often underestimated causes and symptoms. This was very clearly showcased during a recent case in Ontario, Canada.
Anastacia Gencarelli, mother of 2-year-old Mia, went to the doctor last month with concerns that her daughter might have a common cold and an ear infection (1). Mia had been showing signs that are usually associated with the common cold and she had been pulling on her ear – something she’d done during previous infections – so the doctor misdiagnosed her and gave the toddler medication for the common cold and infection.
Anastacia gave the meds to Mia for a full week, three times a day. The little girl had a brief period of feeling better during these 7 days but eventually reverted back to being ill and refusing to eat. One trip to the doctor got her a set of antibiotics but even after another week with these meds, Mia was still not feeling any better.
Instead, her symptoms were worsening. “She was very miserable, and [showing] loss of color,” Anastacia mentioned and added that she caught her daughter “sucking on baby wipes” several times, which is a sign of pica, an eating disorder in which people eat items that are not food.
The Tipping Point
At the end of the second week, Anastacia decided that it was time for drastic action. She and her husband took the sickly baby to the ER and when a nurse there saw the “limp baby” she immediately jumped into action.
“She comes flying out saying ‘I don’t care how long you have all been waiting that baby comes with me,'” Anastacia recalled in her Facebook post “We didn’t do triage, we didn’t register, nurse kicked people out of a room for my daughter and as we rush in six nurses and two doctors follow. Before I know it they are all working on my little girl attaching heart monitors, blood pressure cuffs, everything you can think.”
Taking blood from Mia was exceptionally difficult and took seven tries until the doctors managed to acquire a sample. After that, the doctors inserted an IV into the baby’s femoral artery in desperation.
“If this wasn’t successful they were going to drill into her leg to her shin bone and implement the IV straight to her marrow,” the mom shared, recalling those harrowing moments.
Even more stunning was the realization that came after the blood work was done – Mia had lost three fourths (75%) of her blood even though she didn’t have any internal or external bleeding.
Eventually, the doctors came to the realization that Mia had milk anemia which had stripped the baby’s blood from iron.
The Cause Behind The Baby’s Milk Anemia
And how did Mia get this condition? It turns out that she had been regularly drinking four to six bottles of cow milk per day – that’s 30 to 40 ounces. The mother explained that she had no idea just how dangerous cow milk could be and always viewed it as a healthy option. However, experts recommend that 16 to 24 ounces per day are the absolute maximum precisely out of fear of milk anemia.
“You have heard of not giving a baby too much water, well don’t give them too much milk either,” Anastacia later shared with other parents. “Cow’s milk in excess will actually strip your body of iron — iron is what makes blood. No iron, no blood.”
And she’s right.
“Cow’s milk has been a staple in the diet of children in North America for a long, long time and is loaded with essential nutrients and energy,” Dr. Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, told the New York Times. “However, as with most healthy things, too much of a good thing is probably not a good thing.” (2)
Milk Anemia Treatment
Once the doctors had found the right answer, it was time to save the child. They ordered an immediate blood transfusion to get Mia’s blood cell count back to normal.
“The blood transfusion solved the hemoglobin issue. The iron is helping the hemoglobin and the anemia,” Anastacia explained. However, the problems didn’t stop there.
“But due to the location of her IV, she developed a blood clot in her leg the IV was in, so she is also now on anti-coagulants to prevent that from harming her.”
Still, with the right care, both in the hospital and later at home, Mia is expected to pull through. Anastacia also shared that she’s going to limit her daughter’s daily dose of milk to no more than 8 ounces and she urges other parents to do the same.
“So please, if this is nothing more than extra knowledge in your mom toolbox, amazing,” she told other parents in her Facebook post. “If it saves you all from the fear, the scare, [and] the terror of watching your child the way our child was, spread the news that Milk Anemia is a thing.”
Breastfed Vs. Cow Milk
Babies are born with iron stored in their bodies. Because they grow rapidly, infants and toddlers need to absorb a lot of iron each day. Iron deficiency anemia most commonly affects babies 9 through 24 months old. (3)
Breastfed babies need less iron because iron is absorbed better when it is in breast milk. Formula with iron added (iron fortified) also provides enough iron.
Infants younger than 12 months who drink cow’s milk rather than breast milk or iron-fortified formula are more likely to have anemia. Cow’s milk leads to anemia because it:
- Has less iron
- Causes small amounts of blood loss from the intestines
- Makes it harder for the body to absorb iron
Children older than 12 months who drink too much cow’s milk may also have anemia if they do not eat enough other healthy foods that have iron.