What You Should Know About Milk Allergies in Infants

milk allergy
Image via Mindi Stavish

Does your infant cry uncontrollably? Do you wonder why he or she is never happy? Believe it or not, most infant fussiness is just normal behavior and completely unrelated to their diet. Milk allergies only occur for around 2 or 3 of every 100 infants, and milk intolerance is very rare in infants. But what is the difference? According to the Mayo Clinic, “Unlike a milk allergy, intolerance doesn't involve the immune system,” so while the two share some symptoms, there are identifiable differences. 

A milk intolerance occurs when a baby can't digest the sugar in milk, which is called lactose. It is very rare for a newborn to have congenital lactose intolerance (milk intolerance at birth). More often, lactose intolerance develops later in life in older children and adults. The symptoms of milk intolerance include:

  • Gas
  • Bloated stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Spitting up
  • Irritability, crying, or other colic symptoms

{ MORE: Making the Transition from Breast Milk or Formula to Cow's Milk Easier: What Worked for Me }

When a baby has a milk allergy, his or her immune system reacts in a negative way to the proteins in cow's milk. In a breastfed baby, the reaction is to the dairy that Mom has eaten. In a formula-fed baby, the reaction is to the cow's milk proteins in the formula. With both formula-fed and breastfed babies, the baby's immune system identifies the cow's milk as a foreign substance. In an effort to fend off the “invaders,” the body releases histamine and other chemicals that cause an allergic reaction. According to WebMD and the AAP, signs of a milk allergy include the following: 

  • Belly pain
  • Eczema
  • Swelling of the face, mouth, throat, or tongue
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Coughing/wheezing
  • Colic
  • Crying
  • Gassiness
  • Hives
  • Failure to thrive

When a baby is irritable all the time, many moms suspect it's their diet. If the baby is breastfed, she assumes that it's the dairy in her diet. If the baby is formula fed, Mom assumes it is the cow's milk in the infant formula that is causing the problems. Symptoms of the food reaction are dependent on how sensitive baby is to the milk. In breastfed babies, it also depends on how much dairy Mom consumes, so the more diary Mom eats and the greater the baby's sensitivity, the greater the reaction will be. The severity of a food reaction is generally related to the degree of the baby's sensitivity and to the amount of the problem food that Mom ate (i.e., the more food eaten and the greater baby's sensitivity, the more severe the reaction).

{ MORE: What Do You Tell Your Child About Their New Special Sibling? }

If you are concerned or suspect your baby is having a difficult time with dairy, please talk to your pediatrician. The treatment options vary depending on the severity of the problem.

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What You Should Know About Milk Allergies in Infants

Mindi is a working mom with three boys ages 4, 2, and an infant (born June 2013). She spent her first 8 years of her career in Speech-Language Pathology at a Children's Hospital. She currently works with adults and children in home health. The real fun for her happens when she is at home with her boys, chasing them around and pretending to be a super hero. She blogs about life as a working mom at Simply Stavish. Her weekly feature, Words in the Sand, teaches parents how to grow their child's s ... More

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