My firstborn was always a fussy baby, and for most of her first year of life we had no idea why. She was gassy, never slept for longer than 45 minute intervals, and regularly exploded out of her diapers. Her stools were frequently greenish and stringy with occasional streaks of blood. She was sometimes wheezy. But, aside from these persistent annoyances, was overall a very happy baby who thrived on my breastmilk once we got over our initial challenges.
We got a clue as to one underlying cause of her fussiness when she was about 9 months old. She had been showing readiness for solids since about 7 months of age, and ate with gusto. She loved steamed sweet potatoes and mango. She loved banana. She loved oatmeal (made with warmed breastmilk, of course!). But when I tried her with yogurt one day her face blew up in a huge rash! It was an immediate reaction – everywhere the yogurt had touched her face or hands were red with angry welts. My daughter was allergic to dairy! I should have known – her daddy was too when he was a baby. Thus began my personal journey through learning about allergies and gut health (both mine and my babies), and how they both relate to overall health … and by extension, breastfeeding.
Luckily, my doctor never suggested a trial of partially-hydrolyzed whey or soy-based infant formula, but I know some pediatricians do – despite the fact that the FDA disputes the claim hydrolyzed whey formulas are “hypoallergenic” or should be given to infants with allergy symptoms and that there are several dietetic associations that have raised concerns about the safety of soy-based formulas due to the phytoestrogen content. I think my doctor knew better than to suggest formula to me – he knew my answer would have been “no.” Plus, have you seen how much that stuff costs? It was much cheaper for me to just work towards indentifying and eliminating allergens. I didn’t have to spend any money to NOT eat something. And, just because there were 1 or 2 small components in my breastmilk that were irritating my baby, I knew, overall, that my breastmilk had many, many other things that formula just couldn’t provide to her. Elimination of the allergens from my breastmilk, I knew, would be what would give her the opportunity to truly heal.
This was six years ago, and frankly, there are a lot more resources available now than there were then for understanding that there is a relationship between a mother’s gut health and the behavior and symptoms of her breastfed babies. Heck, there is a lot more research available now that looks at the links between gut health and our health and behavior in general and how amazing it is!! I’m not going to pretend to be an expert… I’m not! And we had a LOT of trial and error along the way. But, both my daughter and my son turned out to have various allergies and intolerances, and I CAN say for sure that these are the things that helped us the most:
Changing my diet to eliminate the things my babies were allergic to. Through an elimination diet and then with confirming blood tests for both IgE (immediate reactions) and IgG (delayed response reactions), we eventually figured out my daughter is/was allergic to dairy/soy/eggs and my son had some sensitivities to gluten. When I eliminated the known allergens from my diet, I saw wonderful changes in their behavior and symptoms.
I won’t lie – living without some of my favorite types of foods sucked. Birthday parties where there’s nothing on the menu but pizza and buttercreame-frosted cakes were the worst! I’m really glad we confirmed things with testing through our doctors, though, because giving up those foods and food groups is not easy and I really needed to see in black and white that I was putting myself through the crazy diets for a good reason. During all of this, I was very careful about continuing to take my prenatal vitamins to ensure I wasn’t depriving myself of necessary nutrients I needed as a nursing mother. But, the improvement we saw after eliminating was enough to keep me going, and eating a diet rich in healthy foods that are as close to the source as possible (mainly fresh fruits and vegetables, high-quality meats, and low-processed foods like nuts and healthy fats) was and is better for our health anyways.
I learned a lot from both the KellyMom website and La Leche League’s information pages on elimination diets and breastfeeding allergic babies, and our holistically-minded doctor was open to running both IgE and IgG tests for us.*
The second thing I did was I took some time to focus strengthening my own gut health. I did this both by eliminating allergens for my children and by cleaning up my own diet… but also by the addition of a few things:
- Omega 3 fatty acids – I started taking a daily dose of fish oil supplements since we really don’t eat fish more often than maybe once or twice per week. We take omega 3 fatty acid supplements because I believe they are good for my heart, my baby’s brain development, settling inflammation in both our bodies, and even keeping postpartum depression at bay.
- Probiotics – There’s a lot of benefit that comes from having a baby and momma with fortified intestinal flora. Probiotics work by keeping other microorganisms in your system in-check so yeast (read: thrush) and other bacteria (like staph bacteria, which have been linked with mastitis) don’t overgrow in your system and cause issues. I’m not saying they are a cure, but I am saying there’s a lot of research pointing in the direction of them being a preventative. Additionally, probiotics boost the immune system, and are good for helping with symptoms of colic too. When a mom has high levels of helpful flora in her gut, her breastmilk is rich with them, too, so her baby benefits. We get our probiotics both through cultured milks (like non-dairy keifer) but also through over the counter supplements found at our local health food store’s refrigerator case.
- Fiber – Fiber not only helps keep us regular, it acts like a little sponge in our systems, cleaning up our digestive tracts and helping us flush toxins, waste, and other nasties out of our bodies. Adults are supposed to be getting 20-35 grams of fiber a day – preferably from raw sources like fruits and veggies. I started incorporating a bowl of steel-cut oats into my breakfast routine as a way to get some good fiber and protein, and for its reputed benefits in helping milk supply. We also use chia seeds as another source of dietary fiber.
- Digestive Enzymes– I was probably the most skeptical about these. I actually didn’t take them with my daughter because I was so wierded-out by them… I mean enzymes?? They put those in my laundry detergent, don’t they? Why would I want to supplement myself with enzymes? (Turns out the enzymes in detergent and the enzymes produced by our pancreases are similar in function – they both help “digest” things – but different in type). And, by the time my son was born and showing similar patterns as my daughter had in terms of symptoms and stooling, I was getting desperate.Also, by that time, I had found the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine’s Protocol for Allergic Proctocollitis, and also had read Dr. Jack Newman’s Protocol for Colic. Both sources mention pancreatic enzyme supplementation for moms who are nursing allergic babies. Knowing that those are very trusted and evidence-based sources of information on breastfeeding, I decided to just try the enzymes and see what happened.Guess what? They helped the most of any of the changes I made (except, of course, elimination)! They were most helpful, I think, because they made any accidental exposure to allergens I had – like when we were eating out – less of an issue. I found an inexpensive plant-derived enzyme blend at my local health-food store. I chose a broad-spectrum blend that is labeled for helping to digest proteins from dairy/soy/gluten. It did not contain any HCL or pepsin – only plant-derived enzymes such as proteases (aids protein digestion), amylases (aids starch digestion), and lipases (aids fat digestion). The brand I found was labeled as formulated for children, so I decided I would be OK with trying them for myself. I also began eating lots of high-enzyme foods like lacto-fermented veggies – hourray for pickles and sauerkraut! – and fresh (not canned!) pineapple. Now, I gotta say, I love my enzymes, and now that my kids are older, they love them too.
Allergies and sensitivities just aren’t the major concern around my house that they were several years ago since we’ve taken steps to fortify our gut health and taken the time to heal. It was not a quick process; it took time to for the inflammation do settle down in all our systems. And, luckily, none of my children’s reactions were ever severe ones – I never needed to worry about anaphylactic reactions or keeping an EpiPen around. But, the annoying compounded symptoms (itchiness, tummy troubles, moodiness, diaper rashes, irregular stooling, etc…) that we used to see are things of the past and reactions are minimal and passing if they do occur. So, what started with a horrible rash on my daughter’s face, ended up in me learning a lot about the importance of maintaining good digestive health for myself and my family. Hopefully, we’ll all be the healthier for it!
* Author’s note: There are lots of different testing methods employed by various practioners to determine what allergens may be causing reactions. If you ask 30 different moms of allergic children what worked for their family, you will probably get 30 different answers. Additionally, there are medical studies questioning the accuracy of some blood testing methods– IgG testing in particular. The IgE/IgG blood testing worked for us given the ages of our children at the time the tests were run, and the symptoms I was observing. But, by all means, do your own research and determine what testing method might work best for you and your family.
On Omegas for Nursing Moms: http://www.uppitysciencechick.com/why_bfand_omega_3s.pdf
On Probiotics: http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm
On Probiotics and thrush: http://kellymom.com/bf/concerns/child/preventing-thrush/
On Probiotics and mastitis: http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/50/12/1551.full
On Probiotics and Baby Colic: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/health/15really.html?_r=1&ref=health
On Dietary Fiber: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002470.htm
Elise Fulara is a proud breastfeeding mom of two who lives in the Western suburbs of Chicago with her wonderfully supportive husband. When she is not wasting time on Facebook, cleaning up after her children, or trying to keep up with her garden, she works part-time as a freelance museum consultant and is also the owner of Sling Savvy, a resource for parents and educators interested in learning about the benefits of simple, fabric baby carriers such as slings and wraps. She underwent breastfeeding peer-counselor training in 2010 through LLL, and is passionate about mom-to-mom support. She facilitates breastfeeding and babywearing classes for expectant mothers at Elmhurst Yoga Shala. She would like to thank her mom for breastfeeding her.