Choosing to breastfeed can be a great choice for your baby. It comes with a wealth of benefits for you as a mother and your little one. Breastmilk is easy to digest, chalked full of antibodies, contains all the nutrients your baby needs for the first year of life, and reduces the risk of SIDS. Breastfeeding helps your uterus return to normal size, burns calories, is convenient, and cheap! Really I could go on and on about the benefits.
But you are probably here because you feel your baby might have a dairy allergy and want to understand how to cut out dairy while breastfeeding. Whether you know your baby has an allergy or just suspect it, these steps can help you make positive changes to have a better feeding experience. It is so hard to watch your child be miserable and uncomfortable, and the goal here is to help eliminate their discomfort.
In this guide we will discuss:
- Symptoms of milk intolerance/allergy in breastfed babies
- How to cut out dairy while breastfeeding
- Options if cutting dairy is not for you
Table of Contents
How is Breastmilk Made?
Breastmilk is produced in the breast tissue. Little sacks called alveoli, take nutrients such as proteins, fats, sugars, and antibodies from your blood supply and turn them into milk. Because your milk is created from your blood supply anything that is in your blood stream can effect your breastmilk. That is why it is recommended to avoid alcohol, certain drugs, and foods (if your baby has an allergy) as these things can be harmful to your baby.
The foods you eat can have an affect on the taste of your breastmilk or how well it is digested. Some foods are commonly known for causing irritability or gas in infants such as: broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, garlic, chili powder, chocolate, and some dairy products. However this discomfort is much different than a food allergy.
What are the Symptoms of Dairy Allergy in a Breastfed Baby?
Two out of every hundred babies that are exclusively breastfed will have an allergic reaction to their breast milk. In most cases it is related to cow’s milk in the mother’s diet. So even if your baby has never had formula they can exhibit signs of an intolerance to certain foods.
Usually it is not lactose your baby is allergic to, as that is part of human milk as well, but the large protein molecules that are found in cow’s milk. These proteins can be passed from the bloodstream into your breastmilk intact. Some babies don’t react well to these proteins and have colic like symptoms, wheezing, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stools, constipation, rash, eczema, or runny/blocked nose.
colic symptoms: frequent, prolonged intense crying or fussiness in a healthy infant for no apparent reason. Includes facial discoloring (flushing or bluish color) and body tension (stiffened legs, stiffened arms, clenched fists, arched back, or tense abdomen).
Always discuss your concerns with your doctor as they can help guide you in an elimination diet or with choosing a dairy free formula. Most pediatricians can offer you coupons or samples for you to try at home.
How to Cut Out Dairy While Breastfeeding?
First off, cutting out dairy can be really hard! Dairy is in so many products. If you decide to switch your baby over to a dairy free formula there is nothing wrong with that. Your baby will be fine and so will you. Your baby needs a present, happy mother so if this is making you lose your mind and sanity it just may not be worth it. It doesn’t make you a bad mom. I supplemented with formula with all my babies, and the moment I accepted that I wasn’t a failure life got better.
If you choose to continue breastfeeding you will need to eliminate dairy from your diet. Some babies will show improvement when removing obvious diary products out of your diet like milk, yogurt, and cheese. Other babies will need you to eliminate all dairy from your diet before you see an improvement. That will require you to read a lot of labels so you can eliminate dairy in all the hidden sources.
How Long Does it Take Dairy Products to Clear Breastmilk?
There is conflicting information on how long it takes to clear dairy from breastmilk. Really more studies need to be done in order to give a clear answer. However, to give you some guidance acute symptoms can usually resolve in 1-5 days of a maternal dairy free diet, 1-2 weeks in cases of eczema or rectal bleeding, and up to 2-4 weeks in babies with constipation, diarrhea, and or growth delay.
Start by eliminating dairy from your diet for at least 1-2 weeks. With some babies you will see immediate improvement of baby’s symptoms in a few days. That is a clear indication that dairy was most likely the culprit. In that case you will want to continue a dairy free diet.
If you are still not sure at 2 weeks, be patient, continue your dairy free elimination diet for up to 4 weeks. At that point if you are still unsure try reintroducing dairy into your diet. If symptoms return then you know diary needs to be eliminated.
How Long do I Have to be Dairy Free?
This all depends on your baby. Some infants will grow out of their sensitivity or allergy. You may be able to reintroduce dairy in a few months to see how your baby responds. Make sure you discuss this option with your provider. Some infants will not outgrow this allergy and it will be a long term commitment.
In that case, it all depends on how long you choose to breastfeed. The AAP recommends that mothers exclusively breastfeed for 6 months. At 6 months you will be adding solid foods to your baby’s diet, if they are developmentally ready for it. AAP also recommend breastfeeding along with solid foods up to 2 years or more if mutually desired.
Recent legislature is also changing to support more mothers pumping at work. The PUMP act just recently was updated in December of 2022 to support more women having rights to pump at work, allows more mothers to get paid while pumping, and gives women the right to take legal action for employers that violate the law. Unfortunately these laws only protect women for 1 year after birth.
Again what you decide is ultimately your choice. Do what works for your family. There is no shame in whatever choice you make.
Tips for Going Dairy Free
- Learn to read labels: some things will be obvious. Milk, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, etc.. However, many products contain dairy, even things you wouldn’t think about. It is required in the US for products to be labeled appropriately so you can see all the ingredients in your food items. Check out godairyfree.org for specific guidance about specific ingredients to avoid.
- Focus on what you can eat: If you spend your days dreaming of all the things you can’t eat life can start to feel miserable. Focus on the foods you already love that are dairy free. This will make the transition seem much smoother.
- Go Vegan: By choosing vegan options at restaurants and the grocery store you can be sure there are no dairy products in your food. A lot of bakeries also include vegan options now if you need to treat yourself to something sweet.
- Find Substitutions for your favorite ingredients: You can still make some of your favorite recipes with the right alternatives. Most grocery stores have alternatives to your favorite dairy products. Pinterest is also a great place to find allergy friendly recipes if you like to cook at home.
- Try different alternatives: Just because you tried one dairy free ice cream and hated it doesn’t mean you are doomed to never enjoy ice cream again. Try some other alternatives. You might find that another brand does it better.
- Prioritize eating enough calories: It can sometimes be hard when you change your diet to get enough of the right things. You open the fridge and feel like you can’t eat anything, so you just don’t eat. You are breastfeeding so eating enough calories is necessary to keep up your supply. Find alternatives you love and keep them stocked in your fridge, consider meal prepping so options are readily available, or get some gift cards to restaurants that are allergy friendly so you can splurge when you need to.
- Take a Prenatal Vitamin Postpartum: When eliminating food you might not be eating enough of the right things. You should prioritize taking a prenatal vitamin postpartum to ensure you are supporting your own recovery and meeting your nutritional needs.
- Join a community: You are not the first and only mom that has had this struggle. Finding a support group of other women who are facing these challenges can significantly improve your experience. Whether it be virtually or in person, you will no longer feel alone. Facebook can be an easy way to find some dairy free mom support groups.
Going Dairy Free is not for me What do I do?
Depending on your baby’s reaction to dairy you may be able to just reduce the amount of dairy you consume and still see improvement in their symptoms.
For other babies you will need to remove dairy completely in order to see an improvement. If that is the case and going dairy free is not for you, here are some alternative options:
- Soy protein formula: the main ingredient is from soybeans and is a common alternative to cow’s milk. Soy based formulas are easy to find, but infants often have lower weight gain than infants on cow’s milk formulas. Soy formulas still promote appropriate infant growth, but due to the lower end of the normal growth range has caused it to be a somewhat controversial option. Soy formulas are often the most affordable and easy to access.
- Extensively Hydrolyzed cow’s milk Formula: This formulation breaks down the cow’s milk proteins through the use of enzymes. 90% of babies with a cow’s milk allergy will tolerate this type of formula.
- Rice protein-based EHF: has been used in Europe for decades but is not found everywhere. It can be difficult for parents to get their hands on. It does have a bit of a bitter taste so can be difficult to switch to.
- Amino Acid-Based Formula: This is an option for infants that are highly sensitive to other cow’s milk alternatives. The cost of these formulas are often 6-8 times more expensive than other options.
Every mom’s breastfeeding experience is going to be different, and there is no right way to do it. Your breastfeeding experience is also likely to change with every baby. Remember you need to make the right choice for you and your child at this present moment. If you choose to eliminate dairy from your diet and continue breastfeeding that is a great option, but choosing a dairy free formula is a great option too. It can be challenging managing food allergies but you are not alone. So many other mamas are going through the same thing. You can do this!
Jess is a registered nurse with over 6+ years of critical care experience for patients young and old and is the mother of two small children. After having her own children she felt inspired to provide mothers with real actionable guidance and education to make informed decisions throughout their pregnancy and postpartum experience.