Do you think your baby might be lactose intolerant? When someone is lactose intolerant, it means their body doesn’t produce enough of an enzyme called lactase. This enzyme is necessary for the digestion of lactose, which is the main sugar present in dairy milk and other dairy products.
If the lactose can’t be digested, it remains in the intestines and causes gastrointestinal problems that are usually uncomfortable but not dangerous. During the third trimester of pregnancy, the unborn baby’s lactase levels rise.
Premature babies are unable to produce enough lactase for some time. Real lactose intolerance tends to show up when a child is in grade school or a teenager. Although it is possible for symptoms to appear earlier on, it’s not likely that your baby is truly lactose intolerant.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance
If your baby is lactose intolerant, s/he might have the following symptoms around 30 minutes to 2 hours after eating dairy products such as yogurt or cheese or drinking breast milk. Note that infants should not have cow’s milk until they are at least 1 year old.
Causes of lactose intolerance
Scientists don’t yet know why some people are lactose intolerant, and others aren’t, but it’s pretty common. In fact, up to 50 million people in America suffer from it. Genetics are certainly implicated. For example, around 75 percent of Native American, African American, Hispanic American, and Jewish Americans are lactose intolerant, as well as about 90 percent of Asian Americans. Just 15 percent of people of northern European descent, on the other hand, suffer from the condition.
The fact is, very few babies are born with lactose intolerance. It requires both parents to have the gene and pass it on to their baby. Babies with true lactose intolerance have severe diarrhea from birth, and won’t be able to tolerate either their mother’s breast milk or cow’s milk formula. These babies require lactose-free baby formula.
Some medications cause a decrease in the production of lactase and temporary lactose intolerance.
People with conditions that affect the digestive system on a long-term basis such as Crohn’s disease or celiac disease sometimes have lactose intolerance too.
If your baby has bad diarrhea, s/he might temporarily produce less lactase which could result in temporary lactose intolerance.
Are lactose intolerance and an allergy to milk the same thing?
While lactose intolerance is a condition of the digestive system, an allergy is an immune response. However, the symptoms of lactose intolerance and a milk allergy can be similar. For example, diarrhea or abdominal pain after consuming milk products could be caused by lactose intolerance or by a milk allergy.
The symptoms of a milk allergy include the following:
- A rash that is dry and itchy.
- Swelling of the mouth, lips or face.
- Running nose.
- Watery eyes.
If your baby develops any of these symptoms when consuming dairy products, s/he might be allergic to one of the proteins in cow’s milk. Severe swelling needs emergency help.
How you can tell if your baby is lactose intolerant
As we said earlier, most babies are not lactose intolerant. The best thing to do is to talk to your baby’s doctor. Tell him or her about the symptoms your baby is showing, and s/he will be able to let you know if it’s possible your baby is lactose intolerant. Your doctor might suggest eliminating all lactose-containing products from your baby’s diet for a while to see if the symptoms clear up.
What can you do if your baby is lactose intolerant?
There is no treatment for lactose intolerance, and there’s no way of preventing your baby from having it. If your baby is very sensitive, avoid all products containing milk and its by-products. Read food labels carefully.
Keep track of how your baby reacts to different foods. Different people are able to tolerate different levels of lactose. Some lactose intolerant babies can tolerate dairy products when they eat them along with other foods.
Live-culture yogurt is usually much easier to digest than milk and other dairy products because the healthy bacteria in the yogurt encourage lactase production.