Any nursing mother will tell you that, whether you’re in line at the supermarket or asleep in your bed, it’s an eternity between the time your infant starts to howl for milk and the moment you successfully unhook your bra, yank up your layers of clothing and throw her on the breast.
Within seconds, an apoplectic, starving baby becomes a happy, suckling one. Crisis averted.
But what if the crisis isn’t averted? What happens when you start to nurse your screaming baby and she continues to scream … for hours? What if your baby is reacting to the milk you just poured into your coffee, or the bread on the sandwich you ate for lunch?
Excessive fussiness is only one sign that your baby might be sensitive, or even allergic, to a food you’re eating — but it’s often the most noticeable.
If you suspect your baby may be reacting to your diet, the first step is to determine if your baby is suffering from a food sensitivity or a full-blown food allergy. Even though parents often equate food allergies with food sensitivities, the two are quite different.
Dr. Cara Natterson, a pediatrician and author of Your Newborn: Head to Toe: Everything You Want to Know About Your Baby’s Health Through the First Year, explains that while a sensitivity can cause a reaction such as a mild rash or vomiting, it doesn’t cause the immune system to mount a full-scale response the way an allergy does.
Symptoms of an allergy can also include rashes (eczema, but generally not hives in babies), vomiting, diarrhea, excessive fussiness, colic, chronic congestion or blood in the stool. And while a breast-fed baby will have soft, sweet-smelling stools that are mustardy in color, a breast-fed baby with a food allergy might have constipation, diarrhea or foul-smelling stools that may be green with mucus, says Camie Goldhammer, the community health center project manager with the Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington.
Occasionally, what seems like a sensitivity or allergy might be neither. Often, something entirely different — such as a viral infection — can be going on, Natterson says. A rash, for example, might show up as a result of the same virus that’s giving your baby a runny nose.
What to do for baby allergies
When babies show signs of food sensitivity or allergy, parents need to become investigators. What’s wreaking havoc in their baby’s diet? The foods that infants are often allergic to include dairy (the most common culprit), eggs, peanuts, soy and wheat.
If you suspect your baby might be sensitive or allergic to something in her diet, what are your options?
Ideally, says Natterson, a breast-feeding mom would eliminate just about everything from her diet and slowly reintroduce one food at a time. While some mothers do this, it often leaves already bleary-eyed moms on a seriously restricted diet.
Goldhammer suggests keeping a food journal for at least a week. Track what (and when) you eat, along with the baby’s symptoms and when the symptoms show up. Then eliminate certain foods or — if your child’s reaction is minor — simply limit them. You may see an improvement in a matter of days, although it may take as long as two weeks for a food to clear your system, she says.
Nursing mothers who eliminate certain foods must make sure they’re getting their nutrients elsewhere. For calcium, for example, look past dairy (if your baby is allergic to it) to items such canned fish with bones, shrimp, almonds, tahini, blackstrap molasses, sea vegetables, beans and lentils, suggests Emma Davis Ganger, a nutritional therapy practitioner.
Wheat flour can be replaced with a number of other flours, such as sorghum, buckwheat, almond flour, amaranth, quinoa flour, arrowroot and millet. Although wheat does contain fiber, beans contain far more, so moms needn’t worry about giving up their fiber source.
Introducing solid foods
Babies outgrow most food allergies — especially dairy — in their first year to 18 months. As your baby gets older, reintroduce foods one at a time. If an allergy is severe, however, Goldhammer suggests waiting six or more months before trying again.
Most babies start eating solid foods between ages 4 and 6 months. But the thinking has changed when it comes to solid foods and food allergies. For years, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended children not have eggs until age 2 and peanuts until age 3. “We told moms to stay away from allergens (like peanuts), only to find that there was no data to support this,” Natterson explains. “The advice has really liberalized, and this includes what starter foods parents give a baby who is beginning solids.”
Parents were once told to introduce one new food every five to seven days to determine if their child had an allergy; now, parents are encouraged to introduce food at whatever pace is most comfortable to them, says Goldhammer.
Because recommendations continue to fluctuate, Natterson (who notes that directives have changed several times since she first began training as a pediatrician) advises parents to check the American Academy of Pediatrics, which collects and redistributes the most current data.
Lea Rappaport Geller is a part-time lawyer and full-time mother of five. She blogs at This is the Corner We Pee In.
American Academy of Pediatrics
WebMD, Allergy Center, Food Allergy and Food Intolerance
The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen for gluten free recipes
Essential Birth & Family Center for lactation and nutrition support