Was it Something I Ate? Food Sensitivities in the Breastfed Baby: Part 3
We probed a little deeper into understanding how mom’s gut influences baby, what causes an unhappy digestive system, and what we can do about it. From leaky gut syndrome to food sensitivities in baby, maternal dietary modifications have become the first line of defense, despite the inevitable difficulties one may face when narrowing the focus of problem foods. A mom’s diet during pregnancy and during lactation is often a hot topic among anyone close enough to ask questions about her experience… even someone in the checkout line at Target! From your Aunt Sally to your Grandpa Joe, everyone seems to have an opinion about what a mom should and shouldn’t eat.
Often times we hear myths such as spicy foods, cruciferous veggies, beans, garlic, etc. cause excessive gas and GI upset in babies therefore moms should always avoid these foods. What about allergy risks? Shouldn’t moms avoid high allergen foods to reduce the risk of their baby suffering from allergies? Most importantly for our discussion here, once an allergy or sensitivity in baby has been detected, many foods are considered to be a cause for concern and are encouraged to be eliminated all at once. This is often with no direction into the how, why, or to what capacity… so what’s a mama to do with all of this information? As a Registered Dietitian specialized in lactation related food sensitivities, below are tips and tricks I share with each client I see, via skype or in person, on how to make an elimination diet work for you.
First Things First…
How do we know when our baby is showing signs of an allergy, sensitivity, or is just ‘being a baby’? Throughout the first few years of life, we go through many phases of maturation, growth spurts, improved function of the internal organs, and cognitive development that lead to variability in bodily functions. As our little ones grow, much like a child or teenager, these phases can be fast or slow, contributing to symptoms signifying the ease or difficulty in coping with such change. When infants have variations in their digestive habits, something many parents have held under strict observance, it can lead to a lot of anxiety and concern about the normalcy of what they see. Each infant’s stool pattern and appearance have individual variations of normal, similar to that of older children and adults. This could be a series of blog posts on its own! For the sake of our discussion on allergies and gut health, the top two signs that tell us something isn’t quite right are the presence of blood and/or mucus in their diapers.
Digestive symptoms such as these often appear around the 2-month age mark when immunity shifts from maternal based to becoming more dependent on baby. At the onset of symptoms, the presence of blood can become slightly tricky. If accompanied by other symptoms of discomfort, it can be associated with an infection, much like a stomach bug for children or adults. However, once screened negative for infection, the continuous presence of blood, dark brown in appearance, begins to direct us toward mom’s diet as a potential causative factor. Mucus often times is paired with green stools and can signify irritation in the baby’s digestive system. If found independent from blood, this sign of irritation can be associated with food sensitivities. If mucus is found in combination with blood-tinged stools, it can be an additional indicator of an allergy present in baby. As with all abnormal symptoms, it is best to check in with your baby’s doctor to rule out other causative factors, especially those medical in nature.
To eat or not to eat…. That is the question.
Corn, tomatoes, cow’s milk, OH MY! Often times the prescription for an elimination diet comes with lack of clarity in what to avoid, how to avoid it, and what to eat instead. Moms are so responsive to their baby’s needs that most are quick to do whatever they can to help their baby find a little relief. This, however, can come at the expense of their own sanity and nutritional status. Determining which foods to eliminate requires in depth knowledge in the mother’s specific dietary habits, baby’s specific symptoms, and an understanding in how the two intersect. Most often, moms come to my practice having already eliminated a handful of foods, randomly selected from a list of ‘top allergens’ or a friend’s personal experience with no regard to their intake. Unfortunately, often times this elimination is only partially complete as ‘hidden’ foods are consumed with no knowledge of the allergen’s presence. Listed below are the top 4 steps toward completing an appropriate elimination diet and getting you and your baby on your way to tip top shape!
1. Recruit your support team. Find evidence based blogs, peer-to-peer support, a personal chef, cooking classes, and most importantly a registered dietitian experienced in lactation related food sensitivities to help you as you progress throughout this process. Having your toolbox full of resources will definitely be the best investment of time and energy in getting you back in control of your diet. Organizing your course and plan of attack, prior to removing potential allergenic foods, will help with efficiency and the level of control during this unpredictable process!
2. Create a food log & symptoms log. Personalization and preservation are the two top goals for me as a professional working with moms on elimination diets. For 3-4 days, I recommend keeping a log of every food and beverage you consume, the time of consumption, and the time and type (breast or bottle) of feeding for your little one. Additionally, it is best to log the time and type of symptoms you see. Although this can be a huge undertaking, it is the gold standard in narrowing down potential causative factors in mom’s diet.
3. Take it one food at the time. Finding purpose in each action we take can release our reactionary response of jumping in with both feet. When offering little thought into the aftermath of this technique, we find that as the allergy symptoms begin to fade, we are left with confusion and uncertainty of the true offender! This can make the road toward reintroduction very tricky and sometimes unsuccessful. To preserve your sanity and protect your preferred food selection, it is best to choose one food to eliminate at a time. It is frequently stated that 2-3 weeks are required to see a complete recovery from an eliminated food. While this statement is valid in some cases, for many, improvement appears within 24-48 hours after food elimination begins. Visualizing this change on a short-term basis allows for continued elimination until baby is well and the preservation of mom’s diet is honored… especially when meal preparation and planning are difficult enough!
4. Reintroduce when the time is right. Unless otherwise directed by your pediatrician, do not fear the process of reintroduction! Permanently eliminating the food from your diet does not allow your baby the opportunity to build up adequate immunity toward this food prior to consuming it directly via solid foods. Before considering this step, allow time for your baby’s body to heal and demonstrate its ability to be symptom free for 2-3 weeks. This is most important prior to initiating this final step. Once successful, begin with the least offensive food and reintroduce in small amounts, eating a portion once per day, or once every other day. Give this step 3-5 days and if all is well, continue down the list until your diet is back to normal. It is important to keep great inventory of your intake and your baby’s symptoms via your food log to keep a good hold on what’s going on just in case symptoms resume. If your baby begins to show signs of intolerance, back off slightly until he/she is symptom free again, holding steady at the highest stage possible. Give your baby’s immune system a couple days to settle into this allergen load. Once ready, begin again, slowly introducing as tolerated.
The key to success during an elimination diet is personalization, education, patience, and breastmilk! Despite having a potential allergen or sensitivity within mom’s milk, the immune boosting cells, digestive enzymes, and anti-inflammatory properties, to name a few, far surpass the effects of the sensitivity… especially when considering the potential harm from alternate sources of infant nutrition. For most, the benefit of breastmilk is crucial in the continued development of baby’s immune system and in prevention of further concern down the road. Although this process varies for each mom/baby dyad, the steps toward successful elimination hold true for each case.