Milk Allergy & Intolerance in Babies

Whilst you’ve likely heard lots about milk allergies or intolerance in babies, it’s actually not as common as you might be led to believe. Many new parents dealing with a fussy baby suspect that their new baby must have a cows’ milk allergy intolerance. Although it is more common than other types of allergies in young babies, milk allergies actually only affect 2-3% of babies. Many parents don’t always understand the difference between milk allergy and intolerance, so to help clear up the issue we asked Kendamil Feeding Expert Katie Hilton to explain (PS you might be interested to hear was she has to say about palm oil and its relationship to allergy symptoms!).

When a baby has a milk allergy, their immune system reacts in a negative way to the protein found in cow’s milk. Cow’s milk allergy (also known as CMA) can be seen in both breastfed and bottlefed babies; breastfed babies react to the daily intake eaten by their mother and the proteins which then pass through breastmilk, whilst formula fed babies react to the cow’s milk protein within the formula. In both situations, the baby’s immune system sees the cow’s milk protein as a foreign body and then reacts to try to fight off these invaders!

Your baby’s body releases something called histamine along with several other chemicals, which causes allergic type symptoms within the body. Symptoms of a milk allergy include:

  • Frequently bringing up a little milk after a feed
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal pain or colic-like symptoms
  • Excessive crying and irritability after feeds
  • Diarrhoea
  • Blood in the stool
  • Hives
  • Scaly skin rashes
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Watery eyes
  • Stuffy nose
  • Swelling, especially around the mouth and throat
  • Trouble breathing
  • Bluish coloured skin

Milk intolerance, on the other hand, has absolutely nothing to do with cow’s milk proteins or a reaction from the immune system. It is instead related to the digestive system and the way in which the body processes the constituents of the milk. It can occur in both a breastfed and formula fed baby and relates to the way a baby digests the sugars in the milk, which is also known as lactose (and why you will often hear milk intolerance referred to as lactose intolerance). Milk intolerance in babies from birth is extremely rare and more often develops in older children. Symptoms of true lactose intolerance in babies include:

  • Excessive wind
  • Diarrhoea
  • Bloated tummy
  • Bringing up milk after feeds
  • Irritability and crying after feeds
  • Failure to gain weight

Now I know you may be thinking “but every other baby I know has some degree of milk intolerance” so let’s talk about this a little. One of the main constituents of modern day baby formula is palm oil; many years ago you would have seen a completely different type of oil used in the manufacture of formulas, however palm oil offers many cost saving benefits for brands. However, when palm oil hits a baby’s stomach it turns into a soapy like substance which creates symptoms similar to those of a baby with milk intolerance. As a health professional I question whether this transition from vegetable oils to palm oil has contributed to the huge increase in milk intolerance and colic like symptoms in newborn babies. If your baby is exhibiting these symptoms, my first recommendation would be to try a palm oil free formula such as those offered by Kendamil before going down the route of diagnostic screening.

If your baby does have symptoms of either a milk allergy or intolerance and a palm oil free formula hasn’t solved the issue, then it’s time to visit your GP. They will give your baby a physical examination, discuss your family history of allergies and refer onto a paediatrician for further testing. They may also recommend using a hypoallergenic formula until screening has been completed.

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