When my oldest daughter was a baby, I noticed that every time I ate spicy food, she cried and refused to breastfeed. It was then that I learned that certain foods mom eats cause tastes in their milk that baby may not particularly like.
However, there are some components of a nursing mother’s diet that don’t just affect flavor. Breastfed babies can sometimes react to certain proteins that are derived in a mother’s milk from the food she eats. Symptoms of food allergies in breastfed babies may include wheezing, rash, hives, vomiting, and loose or bloody stools.
The tricky part is figuring out if these symptoms are coming from something mom ate. Many other medical conditions can also be the cause. Bloody stools can appear with viral infections, for example.
Surprisingly, there is no better approach to determining if a food allergy is the cause of the symptoms, according to a recent review on this topic in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Pediatric allergist Dr Puja Sood Rajani and colleagues report that cow’s milk is the most likely cause of food allergies in exclusively breastfed babies. It is therefore the first food that mothers are told to eliminate. Milk isn’t always the culprit, however. Fish, eggs, soybeans, tree nuts, corn, and wheat can also be prime suspects. And some infants have problems with more than one food.
Nutrition experts also warn that in finding the cause of the baby’s symptoms, important sources of calcium and other essential nutrients may be removed from the diet. So what does a mom have to do?
A medical check-up is the first step. Depending on the symptoms and history, certain foods from the mother’s diet may need to be eliminated during a trial period. Parents should keep track of what the mother eats and when the symptoms appear in the baby. Signs of food allergy in breastfed babies can appear immediately or up to two days after mom ingests a trigger food.
This can be a long process, especially if more than one food is involved, as the food must be eliminated one at a time. Once a suspect food is eliminated, it may take two to four weeks for improvements to be seen. If a suspicious food doesn’t cause symptoms, it doesn’t need to be permanently removed from the mother’s diet, says Rajani and his team.
The good news is that many infants overcome food allergies. The goal, experts say, is not to eliminate nutrient-dense foods unnecessarily from a nursing mother’s diet. And remember, mom’s food isn’t always the cause of baby’s discomfort. A thoughtful step-by-step approach using medical tests as well as eliminating suspicious foods when warranted is the best way to find answers.
Barbara Quinn-Intermill is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Care Specialist affiliated with the Monterey Peninsula Community Hospital. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition: The Uncomplicated Science of Eating”. Email him at [email protected]