Is your baby reacting to something in your milk?

What to Know

  • Know the signs and symptoms of food allergy or intolerance reactions in breastfed infants
  • Learn which foods are the most common allergens
  • How to manage your food intake to help alleviate your baby’s symptoms
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Mother breastfeeding her baby

Breastmilk is incredible – it offers a complete form of nutrition for infants, and offers a range of benefits for health, growth, immunity and development. The nutrients in your breastmilk come directly from what’s circulating in your blood, meaning that whatever nutrients you absorb from the food you eat are passed along to your baby. While being truly allergic or reacting to something in mom’s milk is rare in babies, a small percentage of mothers do notice a difference in their babies’ symptoms or behavior after eating certain foods.

So what counts as a food related reaction? The most common signs of food allergy or intolerance in breastfed infants are eczema (a scaly, red skin rash) and bloody stool (with no other signs of illness). You might also see hives, wheezing, nasal congestion, vomiting or diarrhea.

If you notice any of these symptoms, an elimination diet can help both to diagnose and treat a potential food allergy. This means removing potential allergens from your diet one at a time for 2-4 weeks each while you continue breastfeeding and watching to see if your baby’s symptoms subside. Yes, you can continue breastfeeding, despite the symptoms, if your baby continues to grow and put on weight.

If you pinpoint the offending food, avoid it for at least 6 months, or until your baby is 9-12 months old (whichever comes later). At that point, you may be able to reintroduce the food to your diet because most kids will grow out of the allergy.

Which foods might be causing the reaction? The most common food allergens are cow’s milk, soy, corn and eggs. In fact, in a study of about 100 infants with suspected food allergy, dairy products caused 65% of cases. Peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and chocolate are also frequent allergy culprits.

We recommend consulting your pediatrician to discuss any concerns regarding possible food allergies. While you can likely manage most food allergies in your breastfed infant by changing your diet, there are some cases in which using a hypoallergenic formula may be required.

You can also benefit from a Registered Dietitian’s care while following an elimination diet. Foods like milk, soy, and corn can hide in all sorts of pesky places, and a Registered Dietitian can help to ensure that you’ve indeed removed all potential offenders from your plate. He or she can also assess your intake and make recommendations to help prevent you from becoming deficient in any nutrients now that you’ve changed your usual diet. And the Happy Mama Mentors can help you meet your breastfeeding goals while keeping both you and baby happy and healthy.

You may have heard that eating foods that make you gassy will also cause gastrointestinal distress for your baby, or that eating foods like onion, garlic and cruciferous vegetables will cause colic. While there is no significant data to support such an association, there are some small studies indicating that moms did notice certain foods made their babies fussier than usual.

A few mothers notice minor reactions to other foods in their diet. Some babies cry, fuss, or even nurse more often after their mother has eaten spicy or “gassy” foods (such as cabbage). These reactions differ from allergies in that they cause less-serious symptoms (no rashes or abnormal breathing) and almost always last less than twenty-four hours.

If your baby reacts negatively every time you eat a certain type of food and you find this troubling, you can just avoid that particular food temporarily. If these symptoms continue on a daily basis and last for long periods, they may indicate colic rather than food sensitivity. Talk with your pediatrician about this possibility, if eliminating various foods has no effect on your child’s symptoms.

A final note: While more research is needed, some studies have indicated that breastfeeding exclusively for at least four months may help to reduce the risk and severity of food allergies, even in families with a history of them (1,2). So if your little one does show an intolerance or allergy early, know that it may resolve on its own before they turn one and that continued breastfeeding may help to protect them against allergies later on.

What to Do

Contact your pediatrician

Bring your baby in for a checkup. You’ll want to rule out any other causes for her symptoms, check her growth and weight gain, and make sure she’s not losing excessive blood if she’s experiencing bloody stool. Your doctor can also discuss the possibility of confirming the presence of an allergy with a skin prick test.

If your child is diagnosed with a food allergy, remember to ask about reintroducing the food later. Most kids will grow out of food allergies, sometimes by their first birthday.

Keep a food and symptom journal

We know it’s hard to find time to eat in those first few months, let alone write down what made it into your mouth, but tracking your intake alongside your baby’s symptoms is a good way to shed light on any possible reactions.

Just remember that foods we eat remain in our bodies for long periods of time. So while a journal can be helpful to pinpoint the onset of symptoms when you first eat the offending food, know that your baby’s symptoms can persist for several days or even 2 weeks, even if you don’t eat that particular food again.

Try an elimination diet

If you notice an adverse reaction in your baby after you eat certain foods, try removing that food from your diet and watch for improvement.

Start with cow’s milk, the most frequent cause of allergic reaction in breastfed babies. Remember, it takes time for your body to be completely free of the offending food, so make sure you’ve removed all sources of the food for at least two weeks.

Seek support

Changing your diet can be hard. Happy Family Mentors are here to make suggestions for changes you can make while still maintaining adequate intake of all the nutrients you and your baby need. She can also help you find hidden sources of allergens in processed foods, and suggest nutritious alternatives to the foods you’ve had to give up (for now).

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