Food Sensitivities in Breastfed Babies

In my lactation practice I am seeing more and more babies with food sensitivities (allergy and intolerances). In Australia, ten percent of babies have food allergies 1, and these numbers don’t include intolerances (non IgE mediated reactions). Unfortunately, many mothers and their uncomfortable babies are dismissed by the medical system, especially if they are gaining weight or “thriving” (not my definition of thriving!). What tends to get ignored, is the impact on both mum and baby’s wellbeing and enjoyment of breastfeeding.  

These are all signs and symptoms of food sensitivity that I have seen in babies:

  • hives
  • rash
  • nasal congestion
  • eczema
  • cradle cap
  • low weight gain
  • unusual bowel motions (excessive number of stools or mucus or blood in stools)
  • vomiting /reflux after feeding
  • excessive hiccups or gas
  • high-needs baby
  • constant sucking
  • difficulty getting baby to sleep
  • colic
  • grunting
  • attachment difficulty / shallow latch / twisting away from the breast
  • breast refusal
  • tight jaw muscles

Food allergens cause irritation to the gut lining, causing inflammation and discomfort. This can lead to babies taking smaller feeds at the breast, fussing and sometimes refusing to feed much at all, leading to low weight gain. Low weight gain can also be caused by impaired nutrient absorption in the bowels. Other babies gain lots of weight because they have an increased need to feed for comfort.

Before trialling an elimination diet, it is a good idea to see a lactation consultant (IBCLC) or someone who is experienced in this area. An IBCLC will do a full assessment ruling out other possible causes of discomfort or breastfeeding problems (eg. lactose overload, supply issues, tongue tie). A doctor can do a thorough check to rule out medical issues such as UTI, GORD etc. Bodywork can play a role. As a craniosacral therapist I can treat unresolved physical and emotional tensions in the body that may be contributing to unsettled behaviour.

After other causes have been ruled out, the first step is to trial a dairy elimination diet for 2-3 weeks. Cow’s milk protein is the most common cause of food allergy and intolerance in babies. Some mums choose to eliminate soy as well, as many babies who are sensitive to cow’s milk protein are sensitive to soy too. If babies are sensitive to dairy, mothers should see improvement after 3-4 days of starting the elimination diet. Stools may take longer to return to a normal consistency. Parents will have to carefully read ingredient lists on packets of processed foods to ensure there is no hidden dairy. Removing cow’s milk from mother’s diet often makes a significant difference. For some mothers this is an easy venture, for others (myself included) it was near impossible. Accidental slip-ups can happen and often there are other foods causing reactions. In these cases I refer mums to a dietitian experienced with helping breastfeeding families. Mothers who need to continue any long-term elimination diet, including dairy-free, should also have their diet checked by a dietitian.

Other factors to keep in mind that can negatively impact bowel function in babies include maternal or infant antibiotics, and the oral rotavirus vaccine (that babies receive at 2 & 4 months). Discuss these medical treatments with your doctor if you have a food sensitive baby. Exclusively breastfed babies are protected from rotavirus through breastfeeding and the vaccine is non-compulsory.

As a mother of a breastfed baby who was sensitive to cow’s milk protein I know the impact food sensitivities can have on breastfeeding, emotional wellbeing and sleep. Parents may be tempted to switch to formula, but breastmilk is still the milk of choice for these babies, providing good bacteria (probiotics), a large range of prebiotics to develop a healthy microbiome, many protective factors, stem cells and gentle exposure to other potential allergens. Most formula is derived from cow’s milk protein, though there are specialised formulas for babies allergic to cow’s milk protein. These are often expensive and taste terrible. There may also be the temptation to enrol in sleep school or hire a sleep consultant, though food sensitive babies do tend to fail sleep school! As it doesn’t help to remove the cause of the baby’s distress.

It is a difficult road caring for, and breastfeeding these babies. There is a lot of self-doubt (feeling you are getting parenting or breastfeeding wrong) and an overriding feeling of helplessness. Parents need support and empathy, not to be dismissed or given advice to space feeds or switch to formula.

Here’s my tips to get through the day with a food sensitive baby:

  1. Keep on boobing!
  2. Don’t worry about routines, forming bad habits, or feeding too much.
  3. Do what ever is easiest for you in each moment.

Remember this too shall pass.

  1. *Article inspired by Robyn Noble’s webinar – Recognising Allergies in Breastfed Babies.  

Resources for mothers:

Four reasons why cranio supports infant sleep

I spent 4 years in the midst of sleep deprivation when my kids were babies.

My first son had difficulty with transitioning in and out of sleep. In hindsight I know this was related to our difficult birth and an activated nervous system. I didn’t know about cranio at the time. I took him to a chiro, a couple of times, and he slept well for the night of the treatments, but that was it.

My second son had food sensitivities. Safe co-sleeping was our survival strategy.

Both my kids didn’t sleep through the night until they were over two.

Image courtsey of Verity Worthington (Baby Sleep Information Source)

I understand the desperation parents feel when sleep deprived, the brain does not work well and life can feel overwhelming. Mainstream advice seems to consist of various ways of leaving the baby to cry, which goes against babies biological expectations to be comforted by, and to be in close proximity to caregivers.

I’m not here to say your baby should be sleeping through the night or self-settling. But if they are hard to settle to sleep, or cannot be put down at all, then cranio may help resolve any underlying issues. Babies tend to sleep better after cranio, not just the night of the session, but better sleep in general.

Here are some quotes from parents I have worked with recently:

“he is sleeping longer stretches in his bassinet”

“he slept 5 hours in a row last night”

“she is calmer and easier to settle”

“he is going down for more sleeps and they are longer”

“she will now fall asleep on the breast”

How does cranio help?

1. Babies nervous system may be stuck in a fight or flight state.

Birth, or events afterwards, may trigger a survival response in the nervous system. An activated nervous system is not a recipe for good sleep. Cranio works with the nervous system, the listening touch helps the body to switch out of a “fight or flight” state into “rest and repair”.

2. Compression of the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is an important nerve that regulates the autonomic nervous system. It winds its way from the brainstem, between the cranial bones down to the heart, lungs and digestive organs. If, after birth, the cranial bones are not optimally aligned the functioning of this nerve may be impacted. Cranio helps the body to self-shift these bones into a position that maximises function – breathing and heart rate is more regulated and feeding, digestion and sleep improves.

3. Musculo-skeletal issues

I have treated babies who have had back and neck injuries from inutero positioning or the birth process. If babies are uncomfortable or in pain they will not sleep well. Cranio helps the body to let go of any constrictions – to soften and relax – and this has a ripple effect on sleep and feeding.

4. Birth imprints

The experience of birth leaves an imprint on our bodies, especially when there have been strong emotions involved e.g. fear, stress or sadness. If baby has a story that is unresolved or cycling in their system, then they will be driven to try to tell this story through their behaviour, this can impact sleep and feeding. When babies bodies are listened to during a cranio treatment, then the baby feels heard and at peace. They often sleep (and feed) better when they have gotten the story off their chest.

Disclaimer!

Cranio is not necessarily the panacea. Some babies I have worked with do not improve with sleep, often for the following reasons:

  • Developmental leaps – cranio will often trigger a developmental leap and when babies are practicing rolling or crawling they are more likely to wake more frequently for a while.
  • Food sensitivities – babies who are uncomfortable due to cows milk protein intolerance (CMPI) or other food sensitivities will continue to be uncomfortable until the offending food is removed from their diet.
  • Temperament – some babies do tend to wake frequently even after emotional, physical and nervous system issues are ruled out or resolved. This may just be part of their temperament.

Sleep is not a learned behaviour but the result of a settled nervous system and a body free from physical restrictions and difficult emotions. Cranio is a gentle and often effective way to resolve the underlying issues that get in the way of sleep.  

Get in touch if you would like to try cranio for your little one.

Breastfeeding a baby with cows milk protein intolerance (CMPI) without giving up dairy

My second son was super unsettled. I remember it being one of the most difficult seasons of my life; looking after a screaming, unhappy baby and a toddler. I became suspicious that something I was eating was causing his discomfort. Apart from the constant crying, the only other symptom he had was constant nasal congestion (and significant cradle cap) – no blood in the stools, no rashes. I was quickly dismissed by doctors; told its normal for babies to cry.

Now I know that it was cows’ milk protein that was the issue! I want to share my story as someone who tried and failed to cut dairy from my diet (as a breastfeeding mother) and continued to breastfeed my son for over 2 years. Also to share what worked to lessen symptoms for my son (who is now ten years old, still eats dairy and no longer suffers from chronic nasal congestion). I know this information is helpful to all the breastfeeding mothers and babies that I frequently work with who are navigating this path. There can be a temptation to wean to formula, but formula itself is derived from cows’ milk protein and special formulas are often expensive, taste terrible and may be hard to access.

My sister and I with Chester
Top: My sister and her unhappy nephew. Bottom: Me, my toddler and a new unhappy baby

Cows’ milk allergy (CMA) is taken more seriously by doctors, than cows’ milk protein intolerance (CMPI). CMPI causes discomfort and often the baby is reported to be “thriving” because they are gaining weight. Whereas, CMA has more serious consequences (eg low infant weight gain, skin rashes, hives). And what about lactose intolerance? Is that an issue in babies? Lactose is the sugar component of milk. It is plentiful in human milk too. Eliminating lactose from the diet will not eliminate lactose from breastmilk. It is very rare for babies to have primary lactose intolerance, it’s often not the lactose that’s the problem, but the protein (casein, whey).

There is a lot of misinformation and confusion, even among health professionals. Amidst this confusion, parents of babies with CMPI are unsupported by the medical system. The burden lies with the mother who suffers through those precious early days, her heart breaking over not being able to help her unhappy baby and often no one in the family getting much sleep. In my case, health professionals were quick to offer me treatment in the form of antidepressants, which I refused. With a background in mental health nursing, I knew it was a situational crisis – the answer lay in finding the root cause of my son’s discomfort (and now it’s a passion of mine to encourage all mothers to do this!).

When he was a few weeks old, I decided to trial cutting out dairy from my diet and failed miserably! I normally eat like a bird, so reducing a major food group left me feeling more tired, stressed and miserable than I was already (and hungry!). I would do fine for days then demolish a large bar of chocolate – feeling really guilty. I really craved my morning cup of tea (with milk). I do feel I am strong willed by nature, but not in this department. Joy Anderson* (Dietitian and IBCLC) who specialised in this area, makes mention that the more addicted you are to a food, the more likely it is to be the offending substance.

Time passed and the intensity of those first few months faded as his attention was directed more at the outside world and less on internal sensations. Still the nasal congestion didn’t go – he was a really snotty kid with frequent ear infections (often babies will grow out of their food sensitivities, but my sons stuck around). I was told by another doctor that he had hayfever. It wasn’t an environmental sensitivity, it was food. My maternal gut instincts were confirmed, when at the age of six he told me “Mummy every time I drink milk, I get snotty”.

I am now reflecting on what has worked to reduce nasal congestion for my son over the years (he also found it unrealistic to give up dairy) as I currently implement this strategy in order to treat my dermatitis. If you are finding that dairy is contributing to your baby’s symptoms and are freaking out at the thought of giving it up. Here’s what I found in our case:

  • A2 milk is a lifesaver! My son may get a little bit snotty but he is able to clear it. I feel regular milk causes inflammation (aswell as mucus) that makes nasal passages difficult to clear. A2 milk has a protein that is better tolerated by those who are sensitive to A1 protein (found in most milk products).
  • Butter and cream are mostly fat, with a little bit of milk protein and may be tolerated.
  • Avoid processed foods with milk products in them (e.g. milk solids, skim milk powder).
  • Eat chocolate that is dairy free (e.g.dark chocolate or raw chocolate).
  • Cheese and yoghurt can be less troublesome for sensitive folk (with my son its hit and miss). The addition of enzymes (in cheese) and the fermentation process (in yoghurt) change the structure of the protein making it easier to digest for some.

Cutting out dairy for 2-3 weeks is often first line strategy for suspected cows milk sensitivity. For some mothers it is easy, for others its impossible. Some mothers may be able to get away with a low dairy intake.

*This is my story of my journey and what I have learnt along the way but it may not work for everyone. For more support there are dietitians who work with breastfeeding dyads who can provide individualised advice.


Please contact me if you suspect your baby has a cows milk sensitivity. As someone who has walked the path personally, and worked with lots of breastfeeding mothers with sensitive, unsettled babies, I can support you in working out the cause of your baby’s discomfort. Phone consults, clinic and home visits available.

Other resources: