After my fourth child was born (via my fourth c-section), I couldn’t have anything to eat at first. It’s the rule right after surgery, even though I hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours and my gurgly stomach needed something to settle down. But they did let me have some fluids. I remember asking for chocolate milk (it was all I could stomach at the moment) and thinking, “I hope this little guy tolerates dairy because I have to get something down.”
One week later I was 100% dairy-free.
That may sound abrupt, but I’d been down this road before. I have four kids who all had food reactions as infants and toddlers. So when my son would hardly nurse and seemed to be in pain, dairy was the first thing to go. Not a little at a time. Cold turkey. No going back for a long time.
He is now two years old and still breastfeeding, and we are still dairy-free, except butter. By we, I mean both my son and I. Because what mom eats, breastfeeding baby or toddler eats.
A big concern for breastfeeding mothers is whether or not what they are eating is bothering baby. It’s possible. And actually quite common!
But how do you know, and should you restrict your diet because of it? Let’s find out.
What are the Symptoms of Food Allergies in Babies?
Determining if your baby has food allergies or sensitivities can be tricky. I mean, all babies are fussy at times. They all get a gassy tummy here and there. They all cry and have their bad days.
But a baby reacting to food will have a consistent pattern of discomfort. Some of the symptoms of food sensitivities and allergies in babies include:
- arching the back
- refusal to nurse/eat
- cradle cap
- red bottom
- inability to sleep
- face/tongue/lip swelling
- difficulty breathing
- loose or frequent bowel movements (more than usual)
- excessive fatigue
- bloated or hard stomach
- excessive ear wax
Some of these can be caused by illness or an immature digestive system, but if they are happening frequently, it’s time to dig deeper to find the root cause.
If the symptoms are severe (i.e. swelling and difficulty breathing), seek medical attention right away. Otherwise, you both observe and test for food allergies.
Testing can be done as early as six months old. Although not the most enjoyable experience, it does give you valuable information. When my youngest daughter was nine months old, we did skin-prick allergy testing and confirmed my suspicion that she had a severe coconut allergy.
Can You Breastfeed a Baby with Food Allergies?
Food allergies are very serious. Even food sensitivities are due to an immune system response (though not an IgE histamine response). Does that mean you can’t breastfeed if your child has allergies? Should you switch to formula? Should you change your diet?
It’s hard to know what to do. Unfortunately, this is where many experts get it wrong. They tell mothers one of two things:
- Stop breastfeeding. It’s not safe. Use formula.
- You don’t need to do anything differently. Just eat what you want. Baby will be fine.
In her article How to Tell if Baby is Allergic to Proteins in your Breastmilk, Melinda Wenner Moyer states, “nursing mothers who reported eating cabbage, broccoli, cow’s milk, onions, or chocolate were more likely to also report irritability and crying in their infants. But a little gas doesn’t mean you should limit your diet. Breastfeeding moms need lots of nutrients, and it’s harder to get them on restricted diets, especially if mothers have eliminated nutrient-rich food groups like dairy.”
Advice like this not only leaves you stressed out with a fussy baby that won’t eat well, but also a lot of confusion, worry, and guilt. I’m thankful I did not read her article when I was struggling to feed my babies!
Take heart, Mama! You can and should breastfeed your child, even if they have food allergies or sensitivities. Adjusting your diet is safe and effective, and you can do it without a lot of stress.
What Causes Food Reactions in Babies?
Before you start changing your diet, you have to figure out the root cause of your baby’s discomfort or inability to nurse well. It might be related to particular foods. But it might not.
A few of the common feeding challenge culprits besides food reactions are:
Tongue and/or Lip Tie
A tongue-tie restricts baby’s tongue and his ability to latch properly. It can also “tie” the whole body, resulting in muscle strain and restricted movement. Having the tie clipped and working with a craniosacral therapist and chiropractor will help release the body. Fixing a tongue-tie is the turning point for many mothers.
Silent reflux happens when baby spits up, but it goes back down. You often don’t even know it’s happening, hence the use of the word silent. While you may not notice the reflux, baby sure does. It is actually very painful. Unlike regular reflux/spit up, the food goes back down causing a burning sensation. Reflux is generally caused by a lack of stomach acid. There are some safe and natural remedies for silent reflux in infants.
Nutrient Deficiencies and Imbalances
Nutrient deficiencies and imbalances can cause feeding issues. Certain deficiencies, such as zinc, magnesium, and some B Vitamins, can lead to undereating. Some imbalances disrupt sleep and mood. Either way, you must focus on your diet to boost your nutrient stores, and in turn, baby’s. This could mean just eating a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet. It might mean you need some targeted supplements. Working with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner is the best way to assess what you and baby need so you can get back in balance quickly.
Poor Gut Health
Poor gut health is very common these days. Due to the widespread use of antibiotics and the number of toxins and chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis, babies often struggle with digestion from the start. Avoiding toxins, eating whole foods, and using a high-quality probiotic can all help restore gut health.
It is possible to have a child that reacts to breastmilk because of your food sensitivities. In this case, when your child is old enough for solids, they will be able to tolerate more foods. I know a woman whose children always have severe eczema while breastfeeding. But as soon as they wean, the eczema disappears!
I have experienced this to a degree as well. I struggled with histamine intolerance when my son was born. Histamine does pass through breastmilk. So if I ate high histamine foods it would cause an allergic-type response in him because of the histamine in my milk. Eating a low-histamine diet for a while was extremely helpful.
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How to Feed a Baby with Allergies
If you’ve ruled out everything else and your baby is still struggling with nursing, eczema, stomach aches, etc., it’s time to make some dietary changes.
Keeping a food-and-mood journal is essential. Especially in the sleep-deprived early days, you won’t remember what you ate and be able to connect it to how your baby is feeling. So step one is to keep a food journal and observe. Write down what you eat and how baby behaves. After a few days or weeks see if you can make any connections.
If breastfeeding is really a struggle, you can start by eliminating all of the major allergens. That often provides quick relief. Gluten, dairy, and nuts are the three biggest culprits.
After the allergens, you may have to cut out some of the harder-to-digest foods like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, beans, and Brussels sprouts. Some foods that could impact reflux include tomatoes, cocoa, and caffeine.
It may take time. Every baby is different, but you can figure it out!
If you need more help, I lay out a step-by-step plan for getting any child, baby to teen, to eat in my book Why Won’t My Child Eat?!
Could a Restricted Diet While Breastfeeding Cause Nutrient Deficiencies?
Restricting your diet while breastfeeding is a big concern. Most doctors focus on this one aspect and use it to discourage mothers from breastfeeding or from adjusting their diet.
While it is true that a restricted diet can cause deficiencies, it doesn’t have to!
All of the common allergens can be eliminated while still getting a full spectrum of vitamins and minerals.
Put your focus on well-raised animal products, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, seeds, and starches you and baby tolerate. Following a prescribed diet like Paleo can give you a good framework to start with as well.
One specific nutrient that is often highlighted is calcium. Doctors tell mothers not to cut out dairy for fear of not getting sufficient calcium. In reality, there are other foods higher in calcium than milk, such as broccoli and sardines. In addition, calcium levels are generally impacted more by co-factors than actual calcium intake. Most people get plenty of calcium through diet. They just don’t have the necessary co-factors to utilize it. So there is no need to put so much emphasis on calcium in the diet.
A common mistake when restricting your diet is restricting calories, but they need not go together. Breastfeeding and recovering from pregnancy requires a lot of energy. Make sure you are still eating enough calories and carbohydrates to meet your body’s needs. Restricting your diet for baby’s allergies is not a weight-loss plan.
Some babies have pretty extensive restrictions. In this case, it is wise to work with a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner to get recommendations for both diet and supplements to make sure you do not get depleted and that baby is getting what he needs.
Even though the allopathic medical community tends to use fear to steer mothers away from changing diet, it is absolutely doable and safe. Allopathic medicine does not specialize in nutrition. Instead, seek advice from an NTP that can give you sound advice.
Is it Worth it to Breastfeed a Baby with Allergies?
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, “Is it worth it to breastfeed my baby if I have to restrict my diet?”
It is a personal choice. Aside from the potential challenge of giving up some of your favorite foods, there is no reason not to. Plus it is the best solution for your baby! Many pre-made formulas and even homemade formulas have allergens and some other less-than-ideal ingredients. Even with a restricted diet, your milk will be the best option for baby.
The funny thing about restricting your diet for baby is that it could actually work in your favor. I have made some of the best diet changes of my life because of my nurslings!
When my diet was very limited, I couldn’t partake in a lot of sweets and treats. So I unintentionally started eating very little sugar. Now it’s just my normal way of eating. It was so much easier to make the switch when I wasn’t trying to do it.
I’ve also benefitted from a dairy-free diet. I had some major gut-healing of my own to do. I probably would have struggled to give up dairy strictly on my own. But since even a trace amount caused my kids problems, I couldn’t cheat. Now I don’t even crave it (well, only in the summer when I see someone eating ice cream…).
Adopting a restricted diet while breastfeeding is often necessary. But it is also safe and often very temporary. Some babies will be able to tolerate a full spectrum of food in just a few months. For others, it takes longer. But it’s not a permanent diet.
Even though my son is still gluten, nut, and dairy-free, he tolerates so much more than he used to! Not only that, he is now an active and thriving toddler. I feel better than I have in a long time too!
I breastfed four kids with varying degrees of dietary restrictions, each well into toddlerhood. That’s twelve years of on and off restriction. It is one of the accomplishments I am most proud of in my life. It has been a challenge, but it has also been so worth it!
Now we are all healthier than ever, and my biggest struggle is spending half of my day in the kitchen because my kids eat so much! After four kids with feeding challenges, that’s a pretty good problem to have.
More resources to deal with food allergies:
- Complete an elimination diet without stress!
- Going dairy and gluten-free longterm
- Find allergy-friendly recipes