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7 Tips To Go Dairy-Free When Breastfeeding

Updated: Mar 2

Discovering that your baby has a cows milk protein intolerance is challenging, especially if you are breastfeeding. For some, this means the end of the breastfeeding journey and a switch to a hypoallergenic formula. For others, this means a total change in lifestyle to a dairy-free diet.

My Dairy-Free When Breastfeeding Story:

28 years ago, my mom was faced with a decision. I was 5 days old, bleeding rectally, when the hospital staff told her that her baby had a severe dairy allergy. That baby was me! At the time, there wasn't many dairy-free options and the probability of mistakenly exposing me to dairy if she continued to breastfeed me was high. Even though she had breastfed her previous three children, she knew it was in my best interest to switch to a hypoallergenic formula to prevent any future reactions.

Cows milk consumed by a nursing mother transfers through breast milk and into a baby's digestive system. Signs of a food allergy may include: rash, hives, eczema, sore bottom, dry skin; wheezing or asthma; congestion or cold-like symptoms; red, itchy eyes; ear infections; irritability, fussiness, colic; intestinal upsets, vomiting, constipation and/or diarrhea, or green stools with mucus or blood. According to Kelly Mom:

The severity of a food reaction is generally related to the degree of baby’s sensitivity and to the amount of the problem food that mom ate—the more food eaten and the greater baby’s sensitivity, the more severe the reaction

Like Mother, Like Sons

Photo of rash on baby

I should have connected the dots sooner. Both of my babies were fussy seemingly for no reason. They'd twist and turn in pain and curl up in a ball trying to get relief from their gas. Initially we were told they had colic but deep down I knew something else was going on. One night, their stools were mucousy and they broke out in a terrible rash. Of course, I turned to Google and realized their symptoms were pointing towards a dairy allergy. I decided to eliminate all formula that we had been supplementing with and try to eliminate dairy until we could get to the pediatrician. To our amazement, the symptoms completely turned around. Their gas reduced and stools returned to normal but the most surprising change was their temperament. It was as if we had brand new babies. They no longer cried in pain, they were happy and content.

A week later, the pediatrician confirmed my hunch that the boys did in fact have a milk protein intolerance after I explained how I myself had a cows milk allergy as a baby. He presented me with two options: stop breastfeeding and switch to Nutramigen (hypoallergenic formula) or completely eliminate dairy from my diet and continue breastfeeding. I wasn't ready to end my breastfeeding journey but didn't know how possible it was for me to change my diet and completely eliminate all dairy. My first thoughts:

Can I actually live without cheese?

I decided to give a dairy-free lifestyle a chance and see what happened. If we needed to supplement with formula, we'd have to use Nutramigen instead of the cows milk formula we previously used. Since there were so many more dairy free alternatives available than when I was a baby, I knew I wouldn't face the same challenges that my own mom did. 7 months later, I am still dairy-free and have learned so much through this journey.

Photo of wedding placecard

7 tips on how to go dairy-free as a breastfeeding mother:

  • Read every single label:

One of the first things I learned about avoiding dairy was that dairy has many names and most of them you've never heard of. Casein, Whey, Lactoglobulin... all are names for dairy ingredients. This means you have to be be incredibly careful when reading labels and be on the look out for items beyond the obvious dairy products. Kelly Mom has a great cheat sheet for hidden Dairy Ingredients here.

  • Review restaurant menus before you go

Take it from someone who nearly cried sitting at mothers day brunch realizing the buffet had no dairy-free always want to be prepared. If you know you are going to a restaurant, review the menu before. Some places are more accommodating of allergies than others, so knowing what you would like ahead of time helps to determine if substitutions are possible.

  • Choose vegan options and add proteins

If you ever are unsure of what to order, vegan options are a quick solution. If you see a menu labeled as vegan, you can easily add protein to these items for an easy dairy-free selection. I would still let your server know of your dairy allergy, but generally vegan items are safe!

  • Some dairy-free alternatives are as nasty as you think they are!

I've tried almost every dairy-free alternative out there and trust me when I say, some are just BAD. There are only a few brands of dairy-free cheese that are tolerable (or dare I say, actually good)! I've learned that if you go into a dairy-free alternative thinking it will be exactly like the original version, you will be wildly disappointed.

  • Lactose-Free and Dairy-free are NOT the same

If your baby has a milk protein intolerance, eating a lactose-free diet is not sufficient. Be careful when reading labels and make sure you don't see "Contains: MILK" warning at the end of the ingredients list. Lactaid milk will still aggravate most babies with a cows milk protein allergy.

  • When in doubt, assume it has dairy

If you're unsure if something has dairy in it, err on the side of caution and don't eat it. Dairy can stay in your system for 2 weeks and in your baby's system for 2 weeks after that. Accidental exposure can result in pain that no mother wants to see their child in and an intense feeling of guilt when you realize that you are the cause of that pain. If it happens, give yourself some grace. Your babies will be fine once it gets out of their system.

  • Realize this dairy-free lifestyle is just a season:

AKA, you will have cheese again one day! Just as your breastfeeding journey is a season, so is your dairy-free lifestyle (if you choose). I know it seems difficult right now, especially at first, but it will soon enough be over. Don't wish it away so quickly.

My favorite dairy-free products:

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