Coping with a dairy allergy in Dairyland

unnamedOh cheese curds, how I miss you! Your squeakiness, your saltiness, your squirt-in-my-mouth-when-I-take-a-bite-greasiness! It can be such a tease living in America’s Dairyland when your little one struggles with a milk protein allergy. This is round two of no cheese curds for me.

It just so happened that I was in the midst of my Lactation Counselor Training (over five years ago now!) when I first noticed trace amounts of blood in my first born’s stool. Willow was about two months old at the time, and I was totally freaked out. As I had suspected— thanks to my training– she was eventually diagnosed with proctocolitis or a milk protein allergy. Now, my three-month-old George and I are working through his allergy.

I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about going dairy free for 13 months and counting due to an exclusively breastfed baby’s milk protein allergy.  

Low occurrence in EBF babies

First, I’ll direct you to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine’s Clinical Protocol #24: Allergic Proctocolitis in the Exclusively Breastfed Infant.

“…[D]ata indicate approximately 0.5–1% of exclusively breastfed infants develop allergic reactions to cow’s milk proteins excreted in the mother’s milk,” according to the protocol.

“Comparatively, infants fed human milk appear to have a lower incidence of allergic reactions to cow’s milk protein than those fed cow’s milk–based formula.This may be attributable to the relatively low level of cow’s milk protein excreted in human milk, immunomodulatory substances present in human milk, and/or differences in the intestinal flora between breastfed and formula-fed infants.” []

Milk protein versus lactose

Secondly, it’s important to note that a milk protein allergy is different from lactose intolerance. Babies who are sensitive to milk protein react to the casein and whey in animal milk, not lactose. KellyMom has more information on this.

Casein and whey are in many, many processed foods that you might not suspect have dairy in them. Make sure to check the labels. Our grocery runs nearly doubled in length because we had to meticulously read each one.

When looking for safe recipes, I found this Go Dairy Free resource extremely helpful. Its founder was helpful and responsive to my queries when I first went dairy-free.

Symptoms and sensitivity

Adopting a new diet can be tricky. Likewise, the symptoms of milk protein allergy can be confusing. Willow’s symptoms were textbook examples: eczema and blood in her stool. When Iris came along, I worried that she might have an allergy too because she had funky, frothy poop. Green, mucousy stool can sometimes point to a food allergy or sensitivity, but in Iris’s case it was my oversupply.

One of our pediatricians reported that babies with milk protein allergies can suffer at varying levels of sensitivity. Some may tolerate small amounts of dairy in the mother’s diet. Others react even when mother’s food is cross-contaminated with dairy. Willow and George both were/are extremely sensitive. That means that on taco night at our house, none of the utensils can touch the shredded cheese. No yogurt residue on the washcloths. No butter knives in the jam. And so on.

Eggs don’t come from mammary glands

Our family loves to dine out, but with a milk protein allergy, we’ve several things to consider. First of course is the cross-contamination component. I’ve found it helpful to call ahead to restaurants to see if they can accommodate our allergy. If you live in the Milwaukee area, we’ve had very positive experiences with this restaurant and this restaurant. The chef even came out to talk with me at the first restaurant mentioned.

I’ve noticed that waiters are often unsure of what dairy actually is. Eggs do not come from the mammary glands of a mammal; eggs are not dairy products.

Unexpected emotions

It can take at least two to three weeks before milk proteins process out of mother’s system. For me, these weeks were/are grueling and emotional. Every time I saw/see blood in Willow’s or George’s diaper, my heart sinks. It’s such an awful reminder that their guts are suffering.   

My husband and I have spent more time obsessively scanning poopy diapers than I care to admit. Any time we notice blood or a lot of mucous, we feel like we’ve failed. I never expected a relatively minor allergy to cause so much emotional turmoil. It’s reassuring to know that even if I slip up, continuing to breastfeed with dairy in my system is still much better than not breastfeeding.

I’m lucky to have my husband as my partner navigating our children’s milk protein allergies. He helps read labels, prepare dairy free meals, and he’s always on the lookout for dairy-free, chocolatey desserts.

A reasonable inconvenience

Dealing with a milk protein allergy is an inconvenience, but it is doable. And it’s worth the sacrifice. Our former pediatrician suggested I remain dairy-free until Willow’s first birthday. She explained that often, a baby will outgrow the allergy by nine months, but we shot for one year to be safe. Ten months of eating dairy-free was better than a lifetime of potential suffering for my little one. A day after Willow’s first birthday, we introduced cheese directly to her; happily, she didn’t react. We’ll follow this same plan for George.

Today Willow doesn’t care much for cheese which I attribute to her very limited exposure as a young, breastfed infant. She’s obviously a Wisconsinite though, because she makes a special exception for cheese curds.

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