In health care, we talk a lot about what’s normal and what’s not. Normally, most breastfeeding parents can eat whatever they like in any amount, whenever they want. Most babies tolerate their parent’s breastmilk just fine. So, why does it seem like people are eliminating dairy all the time while breastfeeding?
Also, many young babies have normal infant fussiness. They cry, and sometimes we don’t know why. Or, maybe it takes us a few minutes, hours, or days to figure out why they’re crying. This can be very normal and doesn’t mean there is something wrong with baby or that you are “bad at this”. Parenting is full of emotions.
If you have ever found yourself in this situation, when your breastfed baby seems to have unexplained crying, you might have heard the following suggestion from other parents or even your pediatrician: “You should try eliminating dairy from your diet.”
No cheese? Are you kidding me? How am I to live? I need my feta!
Evidence has shown that of babies react to the milk protein in breastmilk, and eliminating dairy can make a difference for these little ones. Still, it can be difficult and disruptive for families to exclude dairy. And for many parents who cut out dairy products, their babies still cry.
Relearning How to Believe in Your Parental Instincts
First, let’s talk about mindset. In our current technologically saturated culture, we are constantly bombarded with messages that, unfortunately, make us doubt ourselves.
I see parents in a full panic, crying and saying, “I’m doing this to my baby. I shouldn’t have eaten that.” No. Your baby’s body is learning how to be in this environment. You’re doing your job. Discomfort is a part of life, and we can’t protect our babies from every little thing. You are growing as a parent.
When I do lactation patient appointments, most of what I’m doing is reassuring patients in the skills they already have. I help them to see that they are more normal than they may have thought. I might give them strategies to comfort their baby who has gas, like bicycle kicks, tummy time, and abdominal massage. But ultimately, I encourage comfort nursing and tell them, “You’re fine, really!”
We have lost the art of patience and forget to rely on our own abilities to figure out what’s going on. We don’t trust our baby’s abilities to grow normally. When we surf the internet, we see so many bad stories, and it can actually trick us into thinking our babies are abnormal. We’re almost waiting for our babies to fail, instead of expecting them to thrive.
Now, I’m not saying things can’t go wrong. Some babies have reactions or get sick. Don’t throw out your parental instincts! What I’m suggesting is marrying your parental instincts with evidence-based information.
Understanding Cow’s Milk Sensitivity and Your Baby’s Symptoms
There are many reasons why your breastfed baby might be crying. If it’s at the same time every day, like in the evening, that could just be baby’s “witching hour”. If it’s after a nursing session, maybe the baby is still hungry. Put baby back on the breast. Your baby might be going through a growth spurt and want to nurse more often.
These scenarios are part of that normal infant fussiness. You might need to retrain your parenting brain and trust yourself.
You’ll remember I did say a small percentage of babies truly react to breastmilk because of dairy products. But what’s actually happening? First, it’s important to understand that it’s probably not a lactose intolerance. That is super rare! Lactose is ALWAYS in breastmilk regardless of diet. It makes the milk sweet and is a source of energy.
The culprit here is a cow’s milk protein called casein. Some babies don’t digest it well, and it can cause severe inflammation, resulting in poop (stool) containing blood and/or mucus. Stools can also be dark green, and crying may persist throughout the day, especially after feedings.
If your baby has these obvious symptoms, then by all means cut out dairy and see what happens. Here are some general guidelines.
- It takes a full seven days for the body to rid itself of the milk protein, so plan to go without dairy for at least two weeks to see if it’s making a difference in your baby.
- Excluding dairy means all dairy products, not just cow’s milk. This includes cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream. You will have to read labels and check for hidden casein. Some babies even react to the casein in beef. (I told you it’s disruptive to do this elimination!)
Keep a journal of everything you’re eating. Document your baby’s feeding times, symptoms, and consistency of bowel movements.
Takeaways About Dairy Elimination
Your baby is a living organism. When babies are born, their guts are sterile. As a breastfeeding mom, you help colonize your baby’s gut with your breastmilk. You are introducing your baby to foods in our culture, a little bit at a time to build their microbiome. Most of the time, your baby will tolerate it just fine with occasional odd-colored poopies.
Sometimes babies need time to get used to these new foods. This happens to us as adults, too. If we try a rare new food, it’s normal for the body to have a reaction. Have you ever regretted that bold choice on the menu at an Indian restaurant? I bet you recovered! If you ate that same food a few times per week your body would adjust accordingly. The body wants us to survive in whatever environment we’re in. That’s why patience is really important.
There are so many wonderful body positive messages for women in our culture these days. I would love to suggest we adopt body positivity for babies, too. The majority of babies are normal and healthy. If the internet and “Dr. Google” have you waiting for your baby to fail, re-center and empower yourself to trust your parental instincts.
All that said, if you truly feel something is wrong with your baby, definitely investigate it with your pediatrician’s help. Ask for stool testing to check for microscopic blood. See an IBCLC if you need to. Be diligent about follow-ups.
Finally, this is a judgment-free zone. If you have suggested dairy elimination to other moms, don’t feel bad about that. Moving forward, though, let’s stop nonchalantly recommending a diet that cuts out dairy. It’s a big deal to do that and can really interrupt families’ lives. Also, it may be delaying the diagnosis of another medical issue.