Milk Allergy In Infants

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

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Although milk is essential for life at a young age, some infants suffer from a milk allergy, which can make it difficult for them to get the nutrients they need. Therefore, it is important to recognize the symptoms of milk allergy and know how to handle the problem properly!

Milk Allergy

When people think of the word “allergy”, they commonly think of pollen, ragweed, pet dander, sneezing, and itchy eyes, but few associate lactose intolerances or an aversion to milk as an allergy. However, that is precisely what afflicts so many people who can’t handle dairy products in their diet – an allergy. For infants, whose primary source of nutrients is in the form of milk (breastfeeding or formula bottles), a milk allergy can be particularly worrisome.

First, to understand what a milk allergy is, when the body takes in the proteins of cow’s milk, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign or unrecognized protein and causes a reaction in the body, typically an upset stomach. This is the same as with other allergies when the body doesn’t recognize a foreign substance and the immune system flies into action. The reason why some children develop a milk allergy and others don’t is unknown, although some cite normal birth vs. Caesarian section, as well as breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, as peripheral causes of allergies in infants.

A person feeding milk to a baby

Symptoms of a milk allergy in infants include frequent throwing up and colic. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

That being said, it is important to understand whether your infant is suffering from a milk allergy or milk intolerance. A milk allergy may be quite mild and is a direct response to the cow proteins in either the breast milk or the bottle milk. Milk intolerance is when the infant’s body cannot process the lactose in the breast milk itself, not necessarily the proteins from the dairy products eaten by the mother. However, lactose intolerance in an infant from birth is extremely rare.

Symptoms of Milk Allergy

When your infant child is suffering from a milk allergy, it shouldn’t be hard to spot, although given how fussy babies can be regularly, identifying a particular issue can occasionally be difficult. As with any allergic reaction, the immune system of the infant will release histamines to attack the foreign protein (dairy products from cow’s milk that is passed through the breast milk). This causes an inflammatory response in the body, manifesting as vomiting, diarrhea, a skin rash, and frequent spitting up of the milk. Excessive crying, coughing, wheezing, watery eyes, and overall irritation following feedings should give some indication that your infant may have a milk allergy. If difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis occurs, take your infant to the emergency room immediately.

A milk intolerance will be similar in appearance, evidenced by bloating, gas, spitting up, infant eczema, irritability, excessive crying, and a low increase in weight. Complete lactose intolerance in infants will be harder to avoid or manage, but again, this is far rarer than a simple milk allergy.

How to Handle a Milk Allergy in Infants?

While it may seem like a major problem if your baby reacts negatively to drinking milk, don’t worry! There are many ways to avoid putting your child through allergic reactions each time you feed him. Let’s take a closer look at some of the options for managing a milk allergy.

Hydrolysate Formula

One of the best and quickest ways to prevent the negative reactions of a milk allergy is to switch formulas. After your doctor has confirmed (through a pinprick test or allergy panel) that your infant does have an allergy to cow’s milk proteins, a different formula can be recommended, called hydrolysate formula, in which the proteins have already been partially broken down. This means that the body is less likely to respond in an inflammatory or violent way to the foreign proteins, slowly helping your infant’s body become accustomed to these proteins. Most milk allergies disappear within the first year, as infants are exposed to more types of food.

Ways to identify milk allergy in infants -infographic

Tips for milk allergy in children

Eliminate Dairy

For infants with a milk allergy, the dairy products consumed by the mother are what cause the allergic reactions in the baby. If you eat cheese, yogurt, ice cream, milk or any other dairy product regularly, then those cow milk proteins can remain in your system for up to two weeks, and maybe affecting your infant’s health. Eliminating dairy from your diet may be an effective solution, but be sure to supplement your diet with other vegetables and food sources that contain calcium, vitamin B-12, potassium, and magnesium.

Keep a Food Diary

The allergic reaction of your infant may not always be as a result of a milk allergy. Therefore, it can be valuable as a mother to keep a food diary of everything that you’ve personally eaten, and then line that up with episodes where your infant showed allergic reactions or extreme fussiness. You can track your diet by those negative feeding experiences and help to identify other foods that may be causing the problem.

Avoid Extreme Foods

Pregnancy cravings and suggested diets during pregnancy are one thing, but once your infant is born, you can return to a more normal schedule and framework for your diet. Eating extreme or unusual foods can cause discomfort and seeming allergic reactions in your child, so sticking to a more neutral diet until you are finished breastfeeding or switch to formula feeding is a good idea. This will also help you determine whether your infant is suffering from a milk allergy or just your strange diet!

Switch to Alternatives

If your infant is allergic to cow protein, some alternatives don’t have the same protein structure and may work better for your infant’s system. Many infants that are allergic to cow milk proteins are also reactive to sheep’s milk and goat’s milk, but soy products are often acceptable and can eliminate allergic reactions in infants. Small lifestyle changes like this shouldn’t be a major problem, given that you have a new baby – perhaps one of the biggest lifestyle changes you’ll ever experience!

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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