Sunday, August 7, 2011

Breastfeeding and Food Allergies

No drinks, ice cream, cake...
Image credit chrisinplymouth on Flickr

After more than seven and a half years of nursing, it is like wearing a comfy pair of shoes.  It is just what I do.  And although I love all of the amazing changes and stages, we have had some rough spots.  Nursing through pregnancy.  Nursing aversion.  Mastitis.  Cracked and bleeding nipples that lasted well over a month.  One of the most overwhelming was dealing with my children's food allergies while nursing.  But after more than five and a half years of it, I am surprised by how easy it has become.  

When Ariana was a baby, I noticed that sometimes she would get tiny little bumps on her cheekbones after nursing.  She seemed gassy and fussy fairly often (we used Mylicon on a regular basis), and sometimes when changing her diaper, she had a red, bull's-eye ring around her anus.  I didn't realize that these were all signs of possible food allergies.  We started solids at 6 months, and she was eating eggs, wheat, dairy, etc. by or before she was a year old. 

When she was two and Joel was almost a month old, he began screaming with every nursing session.  He would arch his back and twist his head as far as he could.  It was heartbreaking.  I shared with some other moms on my breastfeeding board and the nearly unanimous response was to try eliminating dairy.  I was desperate, and even though I am addicted to cheese, I began ruthlessly cutting out every trace of dairy from my diet.  Within two days, I could see a dramatic difference.  It took several more days for the dairy to completely leave his system, but he went back to the happy baby he had been as a newborn.

It was more than worth it to have him stop screaming, but it was incredibly daunting.  Every bite of food became an ordeal.  Grocery shopping took forever the first few weeks as I pored over labels.  This was before they were required to list the top 8 allergens, and I was looking suspiciously at things like caramel coloring and wondering if they contained dairy.  I can still remember the screaming and pain after I ate some clear broth soup that I was sure would be dairy-free, only to find out that it contained bouillon, which has dairy.

I really struggled with resentment when my husband was oblivious to the effort and frustration of every single bite.  It was hard enough at home, but when we would eat out or with family and friends it was a million times worse.  I hated having to grill them over every possible ingredient, but bringing my own food felt rude, too.  One year at Thanksgiving, some family told me that they had made mashed potatoes without milk so that I could have some.  Just as I was about to eat a bite, I noticed how creamy they looked and asked if there was any butter.  "Oh, yes.  We always put in lots of butter."  I tried to smile as I explained that I couldn't eat them, but inwardly I was so disappointed, for both of us.

There is a lot of confusion about allergies, intolerances and preferences.  I feared that a lot of people considered our dairy elimination as merely a preference and didn't take it seriously.  At one restaurant, I ordered the meal without cheese.  When it arrived with melted cheese all over, I politely explained that we were allergic to dairy, and sent it back.  It came back with most of the cheese scraped off.  :head desk.  (For the record, even if that was merely a preference, I would find that terrible service from a restaurant).

It took weeks before I began to find my footing.  Gradually, I built up a list of generally safe foods/brands.  I still had to think about every bite, but it didn't take nearly as long.  I missed my favorite foods a lot, especially cheese.  I could adjust to rice milk, Smart Balance light, and coconut milk ice cream.  I learned to adapt recipes, and thanked God daily for Oreos.  But I never found an acceptable cheese substitute.

I had been eliminating dairy for several months when Ariana started showing more symptoms.  Eczema breakouts, then hives.  The hives only happened a couple of times, but I pushed hard for allergy testing.  I wondered if I was making too big of a deal about it, if it was all in my head.  Then the results came back.  She was allergic to dairy, wheat, eggs, corn, peanuts, olives and green beans.  While a tiny part of me felt relief that it wasn't just my imagination, that was drowned by the sheer terror.  WHAT was left to eat that didn't contain any of those ingredients?!

Once again, we went through the weeks of poring over labels, looking up ingredients from restaurants on the Internet, and trying to adapt.  This time it was harder because I had to explain to a three year old over and over why she could no longer have any of her favorite foods.  She was a trooper, but it made me sad to deny her or see her left out at birthday parties or other places.  She even reacted to the wheat in Play-Dough.

Her eczema cleared up, though.  She was diaper-free at night as soon as we eliminated the wheat and she actually began sleeping all night.  Her behavior changed noticeably, she was less irritable and aggressive with her little brother.  We began eating more healthfully as a family (sometimes.  We also indulged in junk food that was free of our allergens, just because we could).  I also became a very inventive cook, because I was determined to say yes to my children's food preferences as much as possible, and also because I had to make food that was safe for the whole family that we actually wanted to eat.

Joel started breaking out in hives and having tummy issues just before he turned two.  He seemed fine with dairy, and tests came back negative, but with incredibly high positives to corn, and lower reactions to black beans and pork. Before Elena was a year old, she was showing signs of allergies, too, including a trip to the ER after breaking our in hives the size of my fist from head to toe.  All her tests came back negative, but she showed clear reactions to eggs and berries.  When Amaya was a few months old she started reacting to corn and chocolate (woe is me!) and possibly to pork. 

What I have learned from all this is that it gets easier.  It is possible to breastfeed multiple kids while eliminating multiple allergens.  The learning curve at the beginning is really tough, but once you adjust it becomes like any other discipline.

The allergy part is still confusing to me because of all the contradictory information out there.  I won't tell you when to start solids and which ones, whether or not small amounts through breastmilk that don't provoke a noticeable reaction are good for desensitizing or if they increase the chances for the child to remain allergic, what role vaccines might play, whether or not alternative treatments are effective, or any medical advice, because I just don't know.

What I DO know is that after five and a half years of breastfeeding fool-allergic kiddos, I am happy with that choice.  It isn't nearly as difficult now as it was even three or four years ago.  (Thankfully, the kidlets have outgrown some of the allergies.  I can have cheese now.  But I think I would rather have chocolate.  Sigh.)  I am still more grateful than I can say to all the friends who patiently answered questions, encouraged me, commiserated with me, and helped us to be successful with breastfeeding through the challenge of so many food allergies.

Do you suspect food issues with any of your nurslings?  Are you trying to navigate dietary challenges?  Do you need a hug or an ear from other moms who have been through this?  Your comments and questions are welcome!  <3

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Pippi said...

I never noticed food allergies with Andy, though I have noticed that he reacts quite strongly and immediately to sugar as far as mood goes. Hunter has some though. I guess I should get him tested. When I weaned him at 7 months because of issues with nursing, I started him on milk formula. He became fussy immediately. No problem. In a week I switched to soy. BIG mistake. The poor kid cried all the time and his little heiny turned raw and oozing almost overnight. I couldn't imagine what must be happening to his insides. So I bought raw goat's milk. It helped, but not enough. I tried to go back to nursing, but it was too late. Then my SIL found out I was getting my goat's milk from a dairy near her and told me it was filthy. So I started boiling the milk first, and that worked.
He seems to have outgrown the milk allergy, but I wonder about the soy. Except for what's in breads, we don't really eat much, and I haven't noticed any reaction. I concluded he must be allergic to chocolate when he refused all his Easter candy except the jelly beans, claiming it burned his throat. He doesn't like ice cream with chocolate either, or chocolate cake, or hot chocolate. So I figure that points to an allergy. And he doesn't like most junk food, which may be an MSG allergy. Many of my family members have that, including me.

dulce de leche said...

Hugs to you! It is so hard when they are so little. The idea that it burns his throat is very concerning to me, because if it started to swell during a reaction he might not be able to breathe. I hope of course that he would never need it, but I would definitely look into getting him an epi-pen. <3

Anonymous said...

Hi Dulce- I'm so sorry about all the food allergies. Being in the gentle/attachment parenting circle has also opened up a lot of info about our food. I can highly recommend Robyn O'Brien's The Unhealthy Truth, Food, Inc, and the Weston A Price Foundation. We now follow a "real food" diet with hardly anything processed at all. The dairy as we know it is so processed, our bodies can't even recognize it as milk. We drink raw milk from the local farm, in its complete intact form. Instead of factory-farmed meat from cow's standing knee-deep in poo, we buy grass-fed pastured beef and poultry. I'm still doing baby steps, but I can absolutely vouch for the healing properties of real nourishing food, it does affect a child's behavior. (Artificial colors like red 40, and blue 1 cause hyperactivity, for example.) Using the GAPS diet has actually reversed food allergies. Sorry, if you already knew all this stuff, it's changed my life, and I love to share it!

Sheila said...

I went through this with my son. Around 12 weeks, he started arching backwards when I tried to nurse him, screaming bloody murder, going long stretches just sucking on his paci and refusing to eat, and finally losing weight. I was so sure it was just a behavior problem -- nipple confusion from the paci, perhaps I was feeing him too often or not often enough, etc. -- so I tried everything to fix it.

Finally I went on a total elimination diet. I eliminated everything but beef and rice for a few days. Within 24 hours I had an amazing improvement, and I was finally able to get him to nurse every couple of hours. Slooooowly I added things back in over the course of several months. Probably it was tomatoes and chicken, though I left out everything spicy for a long time as well. Eventually, all the symptoms disappeared, no matter what he ate. He loves tomatoes now, and has no rashes or crankiness after them or any other food. But till he was about a year, I had to be very careful about my diet.

It sounds hard, but I always encourage other moms whose babies are having issues to try it. It won't cause any harm, and the payoff when a screamy baby suddenly turns happy is SO worth it. I would live on rice forever just to see that transformation.

Be A Fun Mum said...

I was quite fortunate when I was breastfeeding my kids; foods didn't seem to affect them. However, my cousin had to make huge changes to her diet, and it was a big deal...but like you say, she just adapted and her baby's allergies did improve.

Anonymous said...

I too had a similar issue with my first...arching back, screaming, etc. He had green mucousy poop, sometimes with traces of blood, sometimes not. I was advised to eliminate dairy, so i helped but not completely and I even watched out for casein, although now that i read your article, I did not know boullion had dairy, but one day he started projectile vomit, and it went on every day for almost a week. I called the doctors office every day for about 4 days, and none of the nurses knew what to say...until finally i spoke to my doctor and he hasked me if I ate anything differntly, and I said no, but then I remembered that I had been sooo hungry with this very fussy baby and I couldn't eat any of the meals my mom had preplanned for me because they all had some kind of dairy in them, that i turned to a nut mix, and had been chowing onit for days...I stopped eating nuts and the vomiting went 9 months we took him for a blood test, and the only thing that showed up was eggs, interestingly....maybe it was that all we had a skin prick test done when he was 1 year, and nothing came back positive, thank goodness. His allergist said he'd be fine, just to limit his peanut butter intake until he was 3 to bites of our sandwiches and not his own. Today he is an allergy free 4 year old, who had excema still but no food allergies. I could so relate to people thinking you are crazy, and asking about all foods, and my sister in law even had soy milk at her house for me! Thank goodness that wasn't an issue! I thought for a moment my second had issues, and that i would have to start to removal all over again, and was reduced to tears!!! I know you know! but thankfully she was fine. All I know is that every professional i spoke with said breastfeeding, with removal of the allergen, was the best way to assist your child in having the possibility of outgrowing the allergy at some point. MOst kids outgrow them as children, thankfully.

Courtnay said...

you (or anyone else looking for dairy free soy free cheese) should look into daiya. tastes pretty close and it actually melts!!

Kim said...

Thank you for telling your story! This was really encouraging to me. I'm still breastfeeding my 7 month old but am getting strongly pressured by our allergist to switch to formula due to the number and severity of allergies my son has. He's tested off-the-charts positive to milk, eggs, tree nuts, and peanuts, and very positive to soy, wheat, and legumes. I've been advised to cut out all of those if I want to keep breastfeeding, and I'm at a breaking point. Even when I'm doing my best to cut out these foods, he still shows symptoms, so I'm wondering if formula would actually be better for him. Did you ever consider switching? What made you decide to keep breastfeeding through everything?