This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my full disclosure policy for more details.
In my early days as a mom, nothing made my heart sing more than being told I had a “happy baby.” When you spend most of your days (and nights) doing everything to maximize your little one’s satisfaction with life, it feels good to hear from an unbiased 3rd party that your efforts seem to be paying off.
But what if, despite moving the proverbial mountains for your little bundle, you’ve been blessed with a baby who is chronically upset?
If you find yourself unsatisfied with a diagnosis of colic or reflux, it might be time to start considering often overlooked possibilities. One of those possibilities is a tongue tie, which can cause chronic gas and reflux (you can read more about tongue ties here). The other is food intolerance.
FOOD INTOLERANCE VS. FOOD ALLERGY
Technically food sensitivities or intolerance are not the same as allergies, although in infancy the terms are often used interchangeably. Allergies (caused by IgE antibodies) cause an immune system response that is usually pretty immediate, can affect multiple body organs, and can be anywhere from mild to life-threatening. For example, a baby with a food allergy might break out in hives (usually on the face, chest or belly), have difficulty breathing, or experience swelling (often in the throat or tongue) when coming in contact with a food allergen.
A food sensitivity/intolerance (caused by IgG antibodies), on the other hand, usually causes less severe symptoms and is triggered in the digestive system. For example, a baby that is sensitive to dairy might have gas, reflux, and green, mucousy or possibly bloody stool. Symptoms of food sensitivities/intolerance can crop up hours or days after exposure and can sometimes be so mild that a person doesn’t realize what they are experiencing is a reaction. Eczema, for example, can be (but is not always) a manifestation of food sensitivity, especially in babies.
To complicate matters, some conditions caused by sensitivity/intolerance may involve an immune response, so it can be difficult to tell if you’re dealing with a true IgE allergy or not. For example, a baby with a dairy intolerance may present with green, mucousy stool and respiratory issues.
If you think you might be dealing with a food intolerance, here’s what you need to know.
Disclaimer: If you are concerned your baby has a food allergy or intolerance, bring your concerns to your baby’s pediatrician or other qualified healthcare professional. The following is not a substitute for professional medical advice.
1) FOOD INTOLERANCE CAN BE THE CAUSE OF GAS, REFLUX, AND COLIC
It can also cause diarrhea, constipation, greenish stools with mucous or blood, itchy eyes, ear infections, general fussiness, and they can even cause wheezing or congestion. Not all babies or children will experience all of these symptoms: my dairy-sensitive baby only experienced one symptom that was dismissed by our first pediatrician as nothing.
2) FOOD INTOLERANCE IS NOTORIOUSLY DIFFICULT TO DIAGNOSE
Blood tests or scratch tests are notorious for producing false positives (indicating an allergy or sensitivity when there is none). To complicate matters even more, the body can develop sensitivities over time. Baby being symptom-free early in life isn’t a guarantee of the future.
From my research and discussions with my new pediatrician and pediatric GI doc, the most reliable way to test for sensitivities in infants in particular is to eliminate the offending food and see if symptoms improve. And if you’ve done that, you know it can be a monumental task.
3) DAIRY IS THE MOST COMMON FOOD INTOLERANCE IN INFANTS
Dairy intolerance/sensitivity is different from lactose intolerance. A lactose intolerant child does not produce lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose, a sugar in milk (human and cow’s). On the other hand, a child with a dairy sensitivity can produce lactase but has difficulty digesting the proteins in cow’s milk (and all products made from cow’s milk—butter, cheese, cream) like whey and casein. This means moms can continue to breastfeed dairy sensitive babies as long as they eliminate dairy proteins from their diet. In contrast, a truly lactose intolerant infant would require special hypoallergenic formula and would not be able to breastfeed since human milk contains lactose.
Lactose intolerance is extremely rare in infants, whereas dairy intolerance/sensitivity is surprisingly not uncommon: Up to 15% of infants struggle with it at some point in their childhood (for comparison, about 2-3% of children are allergic to dairy).
Other common food sensitivities after dairy are soy and wheat, but any of the “top 8” foods most likely to cause allergies (peanuts, dairy, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, wheat, eggs, soy) are also most likely to cause sensitivities. To complicate matters further, the proteins in soy, dairy, peanuts, etc., are similar enough that sometimes the body reacts to more than just dairy proteins.
4) IF YOUR BABY HAS A FOOD INTOLERANCE, YOU HAVE OPTIONS
These options may include switching formulas if you are formula feeding or, if you are breastfeeding, eliminating the offending food in all its forms from your diet. If you are breastfeeding, you do not necessarily need to switch to formula if you are willing to be diligent with your diet.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT FOOD INTOLERANCE RIGHT NOW?
While you are waiting to meet with your baby’s doctor, there are a few things you can do in the meantime.
1) Be advised: If you are breastfeeding it can take as long as four weeks for dairy to leave your and baby’s systems and up to 8-10 weeks to see an improvement in stool or for baby’s digestion to return to normal. Many moms are tempted to give up after a week or two, since many doctors and internet sources say baby should be improving by then. This is true in theory but is not always true in practice. It took 8 weeks for my daughter’s symptoms to resolve.
If you decide to eliminate dairy from your diet, make sure you are supplementing any missing nutrients with other foods that offer them in sufficient quantities and adjust your calorie intake accordingly. Let your doctor know you have chosen to eliminate any foods.
2) Focus on alleviating symptoms (affiliate links below for your convenience)
- Babies dealing with reflux benefit from sleeping more upright (we used this sleeper during the day) and from being worn (I don’t know what I would have done without my baby carrier–you can learn more about baby wearing here).
- Babies dealing with eczema can go without being bathed daily, should be pat dry after a bath and moisturized as soon as possible thereafter (this cream helped us with eczema symptoms as did lotion bars).
- A good infant probiotic (this one is dairy free) and a probiotic for mom (make sure it says “dairy free” not just “non-dairy”) is beneficial and can also aid in digestion. A probiotic was the first thing my new pediatrician suggested when my daughter presented with digestion issues.
3) Give your baby as many snuggles as possible. His cries can make you want to tear your hair out, but keep in mind he is uncomfortable and doesn’t understand why. She’s not trying to manipulate. I found in my our difficult moments reminding myself of this helped me maintain my empathy and my cool.
4) Give yourself a break. Remember that your baby crying has no bearing on how good of a mom you are! You’re doing your best, and that’s all you can do.
5) Start taking notes. Keep track of your baby’s diet and/or your diet and how baby reacts to different foods you consume. If baby is on formula, take note of changes in stool and diaper output. You can download my FREE food sensitivity journal here:
Food sensitivities can be a struggle to deal with, but the good news is this: with the right support and diet changes, your little one doesn’t have to continue feeling miserable. In fact, most food sensitivities particularly dairy – are outgrown during childhood! Don’t give up hope yet mama. You’ve got this.
Did you have a baby with a food sensitivity? Help other moms by sharing your stories and experiences in the comments below!
P.S. DISCLOSURE: This blog post contains affiliate links, meaning I will receive a small commission on products purchased through these links at no extra cost to you. Please see my FAQs and disclosure policy for more information! Thanks for your support :)
- Kelly Mom – Dairy and other Food Sensitivities in Breastfed Babies
- Kelly Mom – Is My Baby Lactose Intolerant?
- La Leche League – Allergies and the Breastfeeding Baby
- Lactose Intolerance – 4 Facts About Intolerance In Babies
- Approach to Milk Protein Allergy in Infants
- Milk and Soy Allergy
- Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Cow’s Milk Protein in Infants