breastfeeding and dairy intolerance

Does Milk Impact My Breast-Fed Baby?

It’s not uncommon for breastfeeding mothers to adjust their diets to ensure sound nutrition for their babies. But how about for a baby’s dairy intolerance? We reached out to Dr. Ruth MacDonald, PhD, Iowa State University, to find out how common it is for newborns to experience or quickly outgrow a dairy intolerance and what role mom’s diet plays.

According to Dr. MacDonald, dairy intolerance is a catch phrase to mean several things that can interfere with a person’s ability to consume milk or dairy products. When talking about dairy intolerance, people usually refer to two very different conditions.

Lactose intolerance: This occurs when the body is unable to convert lactose (milk sugar) due to the lack of a sufficient amount of the enzyme lactase in the intestine. Common symptoms include cramps, bloating and diarrhea.

According to a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, lactose intolerance is rare in infants because the enzyme lactase is generally at its highest levels soon after birth and declines as people age. True lactose intolerance, where the body lacks the enzyme lactase, usually shows up in grade school and beyond.

Different people have varying levels of lactose intolerance. Dr. MacDonald notes that some with lactose intolerance can consume ice cream or cheese because of lower levels of lactose in those foods. In addition, some people may develop a temporary lactose intolerance after an intestinal illness, for example, or if lactose is eliminated from the diet after a long time. In both instances, the body would need time to begin making a sufficient level of lactase.

Milk allergy: Milk contains several proteins and sometimes the body’s immune system can have a reaction to a specific dairy protein. This is caused by the body reacting to a dairy protein. According to Dr. MacDonald, “this is an allergic reaction and not intolerance.”

Breastfeeding and Dairy Intolerance

One of our readers asked, “When my son was about 3 months, we learned he had a dairy intolerance, and because I was breast-feeding, I had to stop consuming dairy products. We slowly and carefully started introducing dairy products back into his diet around 9 months and he seems to be fine now with drinking whole milk and eating yogurt and cheese. Is it common for babies to outgrow this so quickly? And if so, why?” In answering our reader’s question, Dr. MacDonald cautions that it is not “really possible to know if the child was having a dairy intolerance at the time unless a specific test was done and the reaction documented.”

And because human milk is not directly created from the cow’s milk in a mother’s diet, Dr. MacDonald says it is unlikely that the milk proteins contained in the dairy products consumed by a mother find their way into the breast milk she produced for her newborn. In this case she says that, “There is not an easy answer, but it could be that the child’s reaction had nothing to do with the diet of the mother, and the fact that the child did better when she stopped consuming dairy was circumstantial. It would be more likely that the infant was reacting to something else and did not have a dairy intolerance at all, and therefore has not outgrown a dairy intolerance – and rather, never had it at all.”

The U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that four to six percent of children under the age of 18 suffer from a food allergy. Food allergies are the body’s immune response to certain proteins in foods. For many consumers, the allergy creates a mild reaction, but some food allergies (such as those to peanuts and shellfish) can be severe and should be managed with the direction of a doctor. If you suspect you or your child have a food allergy, talk to your doctor who can diagnose and help you effectively manage a food allergy.

If you’re a breastfeeding mom, have you had to adjust your diet to limit your newborn’s reaction to breast milk?

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