What do I do if I suspect my child may have a cow’s milk allergy?

One question that often comes up in our BabyNatal Colic and Calming workshops is whether dairy allergy or lactose intolerance could cause colic. This is certainly a possibility (although there are others), and the advice that we give parents in our classes is to work with their health professionals to look at the baby’s feeds to try and accommodate these allergies or intolerance.

The good news is that a lot of babies do grow out of allergies or intolerance as their digestive system matures, but if this is an area of concern for you at the moment, here’s some information that you might find useful.

What is cow’s milk allergy?

Cow’s milk allergy is a reaction from the immune system to one or both the proteins contained in cow’s milk (casein and whey). It should not be confused with lactose intolerance, which is the inability to digest the milk sugar found in milk (including breast milk).

Cow’s milk allergy is the most common food allergy in infants and young children in the UK, and it can occur in both breastfed and formula-fed babies.

What symptoms should I look out for and will they appear straight after a feed?

In some babies symptoms can occur immediately after feeding (for example, redness or swelling of the lips and mouth).

In others they can be delayed for up to a couple of days. If accompanied by restless sleep or excessive crying, these symptoms could reveal a delayed cow’s milk allergy:

  • Colic
  • Diarrhoea
  • Eczema
  • Back arching
  • Not feeding
  • Reflux
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

How do I find out if my baby has cow’s milk allergy?

It can be difficult at first to link the above symptoms to cow’s milk allergy, as these can be mistaken (both by parents and by health professionals), for other common conditions seen in babies. But if you suspect that your baby may be showing symptoms of delayed cow’s milk allergy, you should definitely consider talking to your GP about your concerns.

Your GP will most likely request some additional information from you, such as:

  • Any signs and symptoms you have observed in your baby.
  • How old your baby was when you first noticed the symptoms.
  • How quickly the symptoms develop after feeding.
  • How often the symptoms happen and whether they are the same every time.
  • Whether the same symptoms happen each time your baby eats a particular food.
  • Whether there is a family history of allergy, especially in parents or siblings.
  • Whether you suspect a specific food is involved (either in your baby’s diet or the mum’s diet if breastfeeding), and how much of the suspected food the baby needs to eat / drink (or mum needs to eat / drink) for the symptoms to appear.

Don’t worry if you can’t answer all these questions with plenty of details. Of course the more information you can provide, the better. But what is important is that you think about these questions in advance, so you can help your GP paint an accurate picture of the situation.

Your GP may suggest that you keep a symptoms diary or take photos or videos of your baby feeding to see if any quick and immediate reactions occur, like swelling of the lips and breathing problems.

Unfortunately there are no tests for delayed cow’s milk allergy, so if your baby has delayed symptoms, the best way to address this will be to try a supervised elimination diet. It is key that the elimination diet is supervised by a health professional or even dietician, as taking cow’s milk out of the baby’s or mum’s diet completely and without advice could have detrimental consequences for some children. All cases are unique and therefore need to be considered and approached individually.

How do I manage my baby’s cow’s milk allergy?

If and when your child has been diagnosed with cow’s milk allergy, you will probably be advised to remove all dairy products from their diet.

If your baby is breastfed, this will mean removing all cow’s milk protein from mum’s diet.

If your baby is formula-fed, your GP will probably prescribe a type of formula specifically designed for children with cow’s milk allergy. This specially-formulated milk will contain different ingredients, and while some formulas will be completely free from any cow’s milk proteins, others might contain cow’s milk proteins in various forms.

For more information on cow’s milk allergy, you can contact AllergyUK.

Does or did your child suffer from a cow’s milk protein allergy? Or do you suspect that they might do? Please feel free to share your experience with us.

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