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Milk allergy among infants is much less common than popularly believed.  It affects only about two to three percent of babies in the population. Milk intolerance, a more serious condition, is even more rare. So, what’s the difference between milk allergy and milk intolerance and how can you handle the problem when your baby is affected?

Milk allergy

A baby is said to have milk allergy when his immune system reacts negatively to the protein in cow’s milk. If the child is breastfeeding, he could react to the dairy products his mother consumes since milk proteins can pass through breast milk. If the baby is fed on formula, he could react to cow’s milk proteins found in some formulas. In all the cases where the baby has milk allergy, his immune system detects the cow’s milk proteins as foreign substances and in its effort to fend off the invaders, the body releases histamine and other chemicals which cause allergic reactions in the body.

Some of the symptoms of milk allergy include:

  • Lack of weight gain
  • Blood in stool
  • Vomiting
  • Signs of abdominal pain or colic-like symptoms such as excessive crying and irritability, especially after feeding
  • Diarrhoea
  • Hives
  • A scaly skin rash
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Watery eyes and stuffy nose
  • Trouble while breathing
  • Swelling especially of the mouth and throat or even anaphylaxis, which is a life- threatening allergic reaction
  • Frequent spitting up

 Treatment of milk allergy…

A doctor will first carry out a physical examination of your child and then do a stool test. He may also perform a skin-prick test. The doctor will be trying to find out if your baby has milk allergy or intolerance. If he rules out intolerance, you will be advised to eliminate cow’s milk from the child’s diet, as well as yours if he is breastfeeding.

He may also advise you to switch to another formula if the baby is on formula. He will check the baby frequently to see if there is improvement and also re-introduce milk products slowly to see in the allergy will recur. This can be a tedious exercise but worth it because once you identify the culprit and eliminate it from your baby’s diet, then most of his problems cease. If you have to eliminate all dairy products from your child’s diet, you should talk to your doctor or nutritionist for diet advice to ensure that the baby is still getting enough calcium and other nutrients that are vital for his growth.

Some children outgrow milk allergy by the time they are about one year old, but for the majority the condition does not completely disappear until the age of three years. Since most children with milk allergies tend to also react to soy and goat’s milk, the doctor may suggest a hydrolysate formula where the milk proteins are partly broken down, making it less likely to cause a reaction.

Milk intolerance

While milk allergy is arises from the baby’s immune system reacting negatively to the protein in cow’s milk, milk intolerance has nothing to do with cow’s protein or the immune system. It involves the digestive system and occurs when a formula-fed or breastfed baby cannot digest the sugar in milk, commonly known as lactose. Hence milk intolerance is also commonly referred to as lactose intolerance.

Some babies may have milk intolerance from birth, which is medically referred to as congenital lactose intolerance. However, this is a very rare metabolic condition. Lactose intolerance on the other hand is common among older children and adults. The few babies with lactose intolerance will usually fare much better on a formula with little or no lactose.

Some of the symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies include:

  • Infant eczema
  • Bloated stomach
  • Gas
  • Spitting up
  • Irritability, crying or other colic symptoms
  • Failure to gain weight

Treatment of milk intolerance…

A common way of diagnosing milk intolerance is by an elimination diet where you eliminate milk and milk products from the baby’s diet one at a time. This should be done on a rigorous diet guided by a nutritionist’s advice. The diet needs to be continued long enough to clearly evaluate whether the symptoms improve. Elimination of all milk products should get rid of symptoms completely if milk intolerance alone is the cause of the symptoms. If intolerance is the problem you can feed your baby on alternatives such as soymilk.

Published on April 2013