Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Going Dairy Free for a Happier Baby

First things first, a little housekeeping. I'm going to take the suggestion that I use my kids' initials to refer to them from now on. So, my oldest is NJ. He's five. Then comes SB, who'll be three next month. And finally, my newest little guy, GI, who's just two months old.

Pretty much everyone will agree that babies cry, they spit up, and many are fussy or "colicky" in the evenings. This is considered just a fact of life, they'll grow out of it, and you just have to make it through the first three months or so and everything will get better. This is essentially true. Babies do cry, to let you know that they need something, that they are uncomfortable, or that they are hurting. Babies do spit up. Many experts attribute occasional spit-up to the immature esophagus and epiglottis, which allow some of the stomach contents to come back up. Most of the time, we don't consider spit-up to be a cause for concern, unless it's really excessive. Often, the baby will then be diagnosed with "acid reflux." More and more babies are receiving this diagnosis and being prescribed medications such as Zantac or Nexium to reduce acid production and spit-up. For some babies, this works. For others, it makes no difference.

Similarly, many babies are fussy or "colicky" in the evenings. They cry for no apparent reason. They pull their knees in as if their stomachs hurt. They can't settle themselves to go to sleep. And we, the parents, have to carry them around, bounce them, swaddle them, or nurse them constantly in an attempt to keep them calm. And most of us are familiar with the last-ditch "put them in the car and drive" solution for colic or fussiness.

There's often a reason for the spit-up and fussiness, though, and it doesn't just have to be "because he's a baby." It's hard for us to admit that something the baby is eating might be upsetting his still-developing digestive system. After all, if I'm breastfeeding, then that means that something I'm eating is upsetting his little tummy, and that means I have to start the detective work of finding and eliminating said item.

My baby spit up sometimes, and some evenings he was very fussy and could take hours to finally calm down and fall asleep. Because I assumed this to be normal ("because he's a baby"), at first I didn't want to believe that there was something in my diet that he didn't like. I never had this problem with SB, or at least, I don't think I did. So I didn't anticipate any problems with GI. After all, I've read over and over again that it's very rare for a breastfed baby to truly be reacting to something in the mother's diet. Kellymom says so. Numerous other articles say so. I tend to believe what I read when it's written by a respected IBCLC!

And yet.

I have several friends who are experienced breastfeeding mothers. And they all insist that they had happier babies when they stopped eating certain foods. For one, it was cabbage, eggplant, and broccoli. For another, it was dairy, eggs, and wheat.

Could this be my baby's problem? Could I be eating something that isn't agreeing with him? Was it worth the effort to identify and cull out this item, or could we live with the fussiness (and could he live with the fussiness!) for a few months until he grew out of it? It just didn't seem fair for the baby to be in such distress if there was something to be done about it. One of the most common culprits is dairy, so I decided to try to see if dairy might be causing a problem.

One evening, I ate quite a few pieces of pizza. Not only was my stomach a little upset (I don't have pizza very often), but GI was definitely more unhappy the next day.


I wondered if caffeine might also be causing him not to sleep as well. One day, I had coffee in the morning, and then forgot I'd had the coffee and had a 20-ounce Diet Coke at lunch time. Wow, was he wired that evening. Yes, caffeine appeared to make a difference, too!

I decided, let me try avoiding caffeine and dairy for a while and see what happens. It's not so hard. And while I do pine for my Starbucks here and there, it's really not been that big of a deal. I noticed improvement within three days! And the change is so incredible! I'll do this until he's three months old and then try some dairy again and see what happens. Sometimes once the digestive track matures, you can re-introduce foods that were previously bothersome. I can wait. My family went out for pizza the other night, and I got the salad bar. Carefully. I did break down one rainy day this week and get a hot chocolate from Starbucks. Not much caffeine, but covered with dairy. (I forgot I could order soy.) I had a fussier baby that evening, although not too bad after just the one exposure.

The clincher was this Sunday. My husband and I had a renewal of vows/wedding ceremony, and I knew I wouldn't be able to nurse the baby on demand. (Have you ever tried to nurse a baby in a wedding dress? Because I have!) So I took along some expressed milk and bottles, just in case I wasn't available when he got hungry. Sure enough, he chose the moment when we were standing under the chuppah to express his desire to eat. So someone gave him a bottle from one of the bags of expressed milk I'd brought along. Fortunately, we had tried giving him a bottle a few evenings before, and he'd taken it happily, so we knew he would drink it if offered. (Some babies won't. It would have been a problem if GI were such a baby!)

Well. Sunday night and Monday he was a major fusspot and kept spitting up. The milk he drank on Sunday came from before I was avoiding dairy and caffeine. Today, Tuesday, he's been all smiles and took a three-hour nap in the middle of the day! Definitely makes a difference!

How do I avoid dairy? Well, I admit it's a bit easier for me than for some people, because I'm kind of used to not having much dairy in the house anyway. We only buy foods that have a kosher label on them as it is, and kosher labels make it very easy to identify if there are dairy products in packaged foods. Kosher items are labeled not only as kosher, but whether they contain dairy or meat or neither. We don't buy any products marked with a "D" or listed as "dairy" next to the kosher symbol. When I go out to eat, I just try to be extra careful. (See below for more detail about these symbols.)

We use a lot of soy and rice milk in place of cow's milk. We use Earth Balance or Fleishman's margarine instead of butter. Also, we use a lot of Pam spray, canola oil, or olive oil for cooking. No parmesean cheese with our pasta. No pizza for me. It's really not as hard or as terrible as it sounds, and this comes from someone who loves a good mac & cheese as much as the next five-year-old.

I tell you, it's stressful having a fussy baby. The change that has come over this guy since I've made these slight changes to my diet makes it all worthwhile. He sleeps better, he smiles more, and he's just generally more content. It's worth the effort. Especially since I know it's not forever! I'll try some dairy and some caffeine in a month or so, if I feel the need, and see how he is. If he's fine, then I'll go back to eating what I feel like eating, but I'll probably try not to overdo it. If he seems to react, I'll wait until he's six months and try again. It's not so long.

Using Kosher Symbols to Help You Avoid Dairy

When you shop, look for one of the following symbols on the food packaging. Not all foods will have a kosher symbol, of course, but you'll find many common items that do.

These are a few of the many kosher symbols out there, but these are easy to remember and some of the most common ones. If there is no word or letter under or next to the symbol, or you see the word "parve" or "pareve," then that means that the product is guaranteed (under strict rabbinical supervision) to have no dairy in it, so you can eat it to your heart's content. If you see a letter 'D' or the word "dairy" along with the symbol, avoid it! If you see the word "meat," then it will also certainly have no dairy in it.

Of course, there are many other non-dairy products out there that don't have a kosher symbol. You can find many tips on the web for reading ingredient lists in order to determine if a packaged item has any dairy in it.

I hope this helps!


  1. Don't know if I'm the wheat/egg/dairy friend, but it sort of describes us. Actually, with E it was dairy, egg, legumes, tomatoes, and poultry - we were never sure about wheat, but avoid it for other reasons. She's a year now, and we've reintroduced everything except dairy, wheat, and legumes without issues (haven't actually tried wheat or legumes). She tolerates small amounts of dairy in my diet (like a slice of cheese from time to time) but not large amounts. We were able to reintroduce eggs, tomatoes, and poultry into my diet by about six months, and she now eats those directly without any obvious problem.

    What we found with my older dairy-sensitive child was that she eventually outgrew the obvious digestive system reactions to dairy, but she still, at 5, has behavioral reactions.

    Coconut milk is my favorite dairy replacement, followed by nut milks. I am concerned about the phytoestrogens in soy, plus a lot of babies with problems with dairy cross-react with soy (I'll still get a soy-based drink at Starbucks occasionally, but try to avoid using it regularly, especially since soy is found in so many processed foods these days - even most canned tuna). Rice (and other grain-based milks) is basically just a taste-replacement, and has a totally different nutritional profile.

    I really want to try Trader Joe's coconut milk, which is apparently $1.99/32 oz - way less expensive than the canned stuff. But no TJ's anywhere nearby (maybe I'll make C go to one while he's in Reno later this week).

    Recent labeling law changes make it much easier to avoid dairy (at least in the US) - major allergens (including dairy) must be clearly identified on the label, either in the ingredient list or in a "contains" statement. So, thankfully, allergen booby-traps are largely obsolete in processed food.

  2. I find it really interesting that even though he's eating dairy (breastmilk!), he's negatively impacted when *you* eat dairy.

  3. Jess:
    I think soy may be a problem, too, although not as obvious as dairy. I was hoping it wasn't. I had edamame two nights ago and tofu yesterday, and I was treated to being barfed on both nights. Hm.

    The thing is, breastmilk isn't dairy. It does contain lots of lactose, as does cow's milk, but it's typically not lactose that's the problem. It's the proteins that are found in cow's milk but not human milk. These proteins pass into the mother's milk, and thus into baby's digestive tract, but the baby can't handle them. Many people who can't tolerate dairy products think they are lactose intolerant, when really they are reacting to one of the other milk proteins.