I hate to say it, but I have more knowledge on this topic than I ever wanted…. Primarily with my first two babies, although I’ve noted that Jacob is sensitive to food additives. It’s not too bad because I basically can eat anything I make at home (no ‘food groups’ to avoid), but I do have to prepare everything myself!
These days, a lot of babies are allergic to foods, and these allergies or sensitivities show up within days to weeks of birth. It can happen in formula-fed babies (which can require trying several different types of formula, including special hydrolyzed formulas in severe cases), but it can also happen in breastfed babies. That’s what my experience has been with — allergies in breastfed babies.
Why Are Breastfed Babies Allergic?
Babies cannot be allergic to breastmilk itself. They can, however, be allergic to something that the mother is eating and passing along in her breastmilk.
This can happen when a mother’s gut health is not optimal. What she eats doesn’t get fully digested before some of it is absorbed through a leaky gut wall (“leaky” because there are places that aren’t populated by the beneficial bacteria that should be there). These undigested proteins get into the breastmilk and get passed to the baby, whose system can’t handle it. This leads to sensitizing the baby and causing allergies. The baby’s gut is open at birth and remains that way until at least 18 weeks of age, which means any large proteins are absorbed immediately into the bloodstream (which causes the sensitizing and allergies).
Breastfeeding is still crucial, because breastmilk contains IgA, a substance that coats the intestines and helps them to mature and close properly. It also protects against allergies by preventing properly digested proteins in mother’s milk from getting out of the gut. If formula is used instead because baby is reacting to mother’s milk, then the IgA is lost and baby’s gut is sensitized automatically by whatever baby is eating (usually milk or soy based formulas).
Signs of Allergies
There are many different signs of allergies. It depends on the baby and the severity of the reaction. For example, when my gut health wasn’t optimal, I noted a lot more of these signs. Now that my gut health is pretty good, I note only a couple (and then only if I’ve eaten something I really shouldn’t have anyway).
- Eczema (yes, it is a sign of allergies!)
- Gas (especially if it causes baby a lot of discomfort)
- Spitting up (a tiny bit is normal, a lot or if it causes discomfort is not)
- Projectile vomiting
- Difficulty nursing (baby pulls back, chokes, screams, arches back)
- Red ring around anus
- Diaper rash
- Failure to gain weight/slow weight gain
- Red, itchy palms
- Night waking/disturbed sleep
You may notice some or all of these. With Daniel I noted spitting up, gas, fussiness, difficulty nursing, red ring around the anus (irritated red, not pale pink, which is normal), and later diaper rash. Eczema was a major sign for Bekah, along with night waking, diaper rash, and diarrhea. Every baby is different, but these signs clearly say “something’s not right.”
Determining the Culprit
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to figure out what’s causing the problem, especially if it’s multiple things. Dairy, soy, and wheat are the top culprits and should always be suspected first. Corn and nuts are also major issues. However, it can be any number of foods. I’ve heard of pomegranates (that was an issue for Daniel), bell peppers, and all kinds of other obscure foods being a major problem, so if none of the main suspects seem to be the cause, try other things.
Foods can get into your milk from almost immediately to 12 – 18 hours after ingesting it. I know that foods usually get into my milk 5 – 6 hours after ingestion (with Daniel this was true). It clears your system 18 – 24 hours later.
For this reason, it’s helpful to keep a food diary. Write down what you’ve eaten and also what baby’s reaction is, if any. After a few days or a week, patterns should emerge — when you eat certain food(s), baby reacts poorly. Eliminate these foods and you should see changes.
It’s important to note that while the foods can clear your system in about 24 hours, resulting in improvement in baby’s reactions, if you’ve been eating the regularly they won’t clear your system completely for up to 2 months. Therefore, if you note some improvement but not complete reversal of symptoms, continue with the elimination diet.
Elimination diets aren’t fun, but they are necessary for your baby’s health. These reactions are also a huge indicator that your gut health isn’t right, and that you probably have food sensitivities too. It’s best if you don’t eat them, for your own health.
Helping Food Allergies
Are you or your baby just destined to suffer from these food allergies forever, now that it’s started? No!
Fortunately, you can move past these allergies. I have done it with two babies and now have a third that doesn’t have any “regular” allergies (just the minor reactions to food additives…which really has just driven home the point that these are not actually foods and we should not eat them!).
Here’s the best way to handle it (in my experience):
- Keep breastfeeding — Your baby needs that IgA to help his/her gut mature properly. Formula will hurt his/her gut when it is already sensitized.
- Eliminate the offending food(s) — Stop consuming the foods that are causing the reactions in order to prevent further damage
- Begin GAPS — This is a special diet that eliminates grains and dairy and focuses heavily on meats, stock, probiotic foods, and fats to heal and seal the gut lining. This diet is how we achieved healing from allergies, and we still go back to it frequently.
- Delay solids — Your baby shouldn’t have solids until his/her gut is sealed properly through breastfeeding while you eat according to GAPS. This should be around 9 – 10 months (assuming you discover allergies in the first few months, not later in baby’s life). First foods should be stock, fats, meat, and probiotic foods.
- Shore up your gut health with GAPS — Stay on GAPS until your gut health is better in order to prevent problems with future babies!
Food allergies in infants aren’t fun. And it’s not easy to handle. But you can do it, and still help everybody be as healthy as possible!
Have you dealt with food allergies in infants before? How did you figure out that your baby struggled with allergies and what the causes were?