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How to Identify Milk Allergies in Babies

Some babies have to avoid milk-based infant formulas because they’re allergic to cow’s milk. Specifically, they’re allergic to one of the proteins in cow’s milk. Casein is one example of a milk protein found in milk-based infant formulas, as well as in many processed foods.

Milk allergy reactions can include hives, rashes, nausea, congestion, diarrhea, swelling in the mouth and throat, and other symptoms. Severe reactions can even lead to shock and death.

Babies with a milk allergy may be excessively fussy and irritable. They may have other symptoms, too, including diarrhea or loose, bloody stools. Your healthcare provider can run tests to diagnosis a milk allergy.

Testing for a milk allergy involves the following options:

  • Blood tests: A sample of blood is taken from your child and checked for antibodies that suggest a sensitivity to milk protein. Antibodies, or immunoglobulins, are proteins produced by the body to fight foreign substances, such as bacteria or viruses, when they’re present in your system.

    If your child is allergic to a cow’s milk protein, his body may produce antibodies when the milk protein is present. Babies who are allergic to cow’s milk sometimes also are allergic to the protein in soy-based formulas.

  • Skin tests: Your child’s skin is scratched and exposed to a milk protein. If your child is allergic to the protein, the area that was exposed to the allergen will react with a hive, or raised, red bump.

Neither of these tests is foolproof, but both can help your healthcare provider hone in on the most likely explanation for your child’s symptoms. A milk allergy in children usually occurs in the early years up to about age 3. After that, the allergy usually begins to go away.

About 2.5 percent of children under the age of 3 have milk allergies, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. The allergy usually shows up in the first year of life. The good news is that 80 percent of children with a milk allergy outgrow it by the time they’re 16 years old.

Between 4 and 6 months of age, your child may show signs of being ready to include some solids in her diet. For instance, when your baby is able to sit up independently and grab for things to put into her mouth, it’s time to begin introducing solid foods. Foods that are easiest to tolerate include nondairy cooked cereals initially and later mashed or puréed fruits and vegetables and their juices. Baby rice cereal is the most common first food, because rice is hypoallergenic. Most babies tolerate it well.

You should wait until your baby is older before introducing protein-rich foods and foods that are high in fat. Foods such as meats, nut butters, and even nondairy cheeses are more difficult for immature digestive systems to manage. After your baby has adjusted to cooked cereals and mashed and puréed fruits and vegetables, you can move to nondairy table foods.

Even in families that aren’t living dairy-free, fluid cow’s milk is off-limits for infants under the age of one year. That’s because drinking cows’ milk can cause bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract and lead to anemia. Infants given cow’s milk also have been shown in some studies to have an increased risk for insulin-dependent diabetes. (Trace amounts of dairy products in other foods aren’t as likely to cause a problem.)

Goat’s milk isn’t a safe substitute for cow’s milk for someone with a milk allergy. Goat’s milk is too similar in composition to cow’s milk. If someone is allergic to the proteins in cow’s milk, she’ll likely be allergic to the protein in goat’s milk, too.

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