Is My Baby Lactose Intolerant?


We’ve all heard the stories. Someone’s friend’s cousin’s sister in law had a child who was “lactose intolerant” so they couldn’t breastfeed. Sadly, the reality of the situation is, it was likely not what they thought it was and they missed an incredible opportunity to have a breastfeeding relationship.

What is Lactose?

LACTOSE is what makes milk. It is the substance that draws water into the cells that creates the fluid form of milk. Every mammal on earth has lactose in their milk and every species creates just the right combination of fat, protein, and water content to feed their babies. Babies cannot be lactose intolerant. Human milk is meant for human babies and human milk is one of the highest in lactose of all mammalian milks. It is about 80% water.

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You see, if babies were lactose intolerant we would have died out as a species a long time ago. Humans are made to be fed human milk (the highest in lactose) until they are weaned. IF someone is lactose intolerant, they are likely not so until the age of 5 or older (typical weaning age across the world is 3 and a half) and into adulthood once their bodies have outgrown the need for human milk and have decided not to process it any longer.

Why does milk affect baby’s digestion?

So what is this phenomenon that suggests our baby is not able to handle our milk. After all, our body grew this human inside us and has the ability to produce everything that baby needs to thrive once it’s born. So why can’t some babies handle being breastfed? The answer may surprise you.

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Studies show that cow milk whey is the only substance consistently shown that can affect baby’s digestion. There is some suggestion that other substances such as corn, soy, nuts, wheat, and eggs may also cause allergic reactions, especially if there is a family history of allergies to these foods, but the majority of cases and most consistent reaction is to cow milk protein.

Why did baby not get better once milk was removed from the equation?

When moms have fussy babies that seem to have digestive disruption, they will often change their diet to see if it helps. So when mom takes out milk and baby is still upset, she takes out spicy foods, then gassy foods, then pretty much everything but bread and water. Then baby gets better and she thinks “Okay, all those foods were upsetting baby” however, it can take up to 10 days for the cow milk to be eliminated from her milk. It is also important to point out that since the allergy is to the protein in the dairy not the lactose, consuming lactose free dairy will not help.

SO feel free to eat that broccoli, those onions, or that garlic. It likely won’t upset baby’s tummy. BUT a big cold glass of milk might. In fact, studies also show that the flavors of the foods we eat DO pass into the milk supply and the longer a child is breastfed the more variety of foods he or she is willing to eat. Some anthropologists believe that the flavors of the foods of our cultures are passed onto our children through breastmilk.

What symptoms should we be looking for to determine if cow milk protein is affecting baby?

Babies often show colic symptoms or proctocolitis (rectal bleeding) but other symptoms can be present as well such as rash, eczema, and respiratory problems. While not all babies show these symptoms, and it may never happen in exclusively breastfed infants, it is believed that 50-65% of rectal bleeding cases are due to a cow milk protein allergy. These diapers can have shiny green stools with bright red blood.

While there is a large variance between how much of the cow milk protein is in the mother’s milk and how much that level may have affected the baby (some babies may be more sensitive than others), the highest levels were present in the mothers of colicky babies.

What causes the proctocolitis?

The bleeding occurs because of damage to the villi in the lining of baby’s intestines. When these villi are damaged, it not only can cause bleeding but it disrupts the baby’s ability to digest food properly and is thought to cause the colic symptoms (I would cry nonstop too if my intestines were damaged!). Excluding this protein results in the bleeding to cease within 3 or 4 days.

What about babies that CANNOT breastfeed

There is one and only one absolute contraindication for breastfeeding. Galactosemia. This is a rare genetic disorder occurring in 1 of 60,000 infants, where baby is not able to metabolize the simple sugar, galactose, causing damage to the liver and other body symptoms. This is NOT lactose intolerance but a serious life threatening disorder. It requires a very special formula because it can be fatal if lactose is not completely removed from the diet. The symptoms usually occur within the first few days after birth and include lethargy, failure to thrive, jaundice, abnormal bleeding, liver problems, and sometimes bacterial infections, sepsis, and shock.

Don’t let this worry you

The point of this article is not to scare anyone about the possibility of this happening to their baby. It is incredibly rare that these complications will arise. The point is to emphasize that YOU CAN breastfeed! Your body is perfectly made to grow and feed your baby! Your milk is perfectly made to meet your baby’s needs and if there is a reaction, it is likely an outside source causing the problem. It is also important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a cow milk allergy so that your baby doesn’t suffer with colic and intestinal issues longer than they need to and you can remove it from your diet if needed.


Hire a Lactation Counselor

If you still have questions and concerns about breastfeeding your baby At First Sight Doula services offers lactation support! With options for every need and budget you can choose between a 1 hour in home consultation, a 4 hour comprehensive in home breastfeeding class (Beginning in January 2016) which are usually done prenatally, or once baby is born we have session packages where we can answer any questions and concerns, trouble shoot any issues you may have and help you be set up for success to meet whatever goals you have set for you and your baby. Contact us today for more details about these services!



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