Question: Must young children wait between eating meat and dairy?
Short Answer: Yes, a young child, possibly as young as two or three, should ideally wait at least an hour before eating dairy after meat, unless doing so would be unhealthy (i.e., the child needs a bottle).
I. The Ruling of the Rama
The Shulchan Aruch (89:1) rules that a person must wait six hours after eating meat before eating dairy. The Rama (ibid) cites an opinion that a person does not need to wait at all after eating meat to eat dairy. He simply needs to wash out his mouth and bentch. The Shach (5) explains the two opinions. The Gemara requires the person to wait until a new meal to eat dairy. The Shulchan Aruch understands that a person usually waits six hours before eating a new meal. The Rama, however, understands that a meal is considered completed immediately after bentching, and thus a person only needs to wash out his mouth and bentch. See also Taz (2).
Nevertheless, the Rama notes that many have the minhag to wait one hour after eating meat before eating dairy. Moreover, the Rama concludes that the proper minhag is to wait the full six hours. This is the minhag of many people today.
II. Chinuch for Very Young Children
The Mishnah B’rurah (343:3) sets forth the rules regarding chinuch, gleaned from the poskim. For positive commandments, it is based on each child and the particular mitzvah, regardless of whether the mitzvah is d’Oraisa or d’Rabbanan. In other words, if a child understands the concept of Shabbos, the father must train him to listen to Kiddush and Havdalah. For negative commandments, however, chinuch begins when the child understands when you tell him or her that something is forbidden or cannot be eaten.
Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita (T’shuvos V’Hanhagos 1:435) rules that, with respect to requiring a child to wait between meat and dairy, the proper age where a child understands that it is forbidden to eat dairy after meat is approximately two years of age. Accordingly, Rav Sternbuch rules that even a two-year-old should wait at least one hour after eating meat before eating dairy, as this at least satisfies the opinion listed in the Rama to wait one hour. The child should also rinse his mouth in between.
III. Slightly Older Children
When the child reaches the age of five or six, which according to the Mishnah B’rurah (70:6) is the age of chinuch, Rav Sternbuch rules that the child should wait three hours. When the child reaches nine or ten, however, he or she should be waiting the full six hours.
Notably, Rav Sternbuch also cites the Chayei Adam (40:13), who rules that a sick person need only wait one hour, and thus perhaps all children need only wait one hour, as well. However, it is much preferable, under the laws of chinuch, to train older children to wait the full six hours.
IV. A Fundamental Problem
Rav Sternbuch adds that there is a fundamental problem here. The halachah (as listed in the above Mishnah B’rurah, 343:3) is clear that a person is not allowed to give forbidden food even to a one-day-old child. If so, regardless of the above guidelines, how can a parent give even a very young child dairy less than six hours after meat?
Rav Sternbuch answers that waiting between meat and dairy is not a “forbidden item,” but is rather a stringency to prevent eating a forbidden item. Moreover, the stringency is not similar to the d’Oraisa prohibition. Accordingly, even according to the Rambam, who is concerned that a piece of meat may still be stuck in between the teeth, there is no problem feeding dairy to a young child less than six hours after eating meat. Indeed, even if some meat was stuck between teeth, at best it would only be a d’Rabbanan (as it is not the requisite size of eating meat/dairy together).
V. Other Poskim
The sefer Chinuch Yisrael (1:3:4), by Rav Y.D. Harfenes shlita, lists other rulings of poskim on this issue. First, many poskim hold that the proper age where a child understands that certain foods are forbidden is three, and not two. Second, certain poskim, including the Be’er Moshe, rule similarly to Rav Sternbuch, that you should slowly build up the hours that a child waits in between meat and dairy. However, they hold that the child should be waiting the full six hours by around age six.
Nevertheless, many poskim note that if the child must eat dairy to stay healthy (i.e., milk in a bottle), it is sufficient to simply wash out his mouth or wait an hour, similar to a sick person.
Next Week’s Topic: May you eat meat that was shipped from a kosher store but without an identifying seal?