I was one of the lucky ones for whom breastfeeding happened pretty naturally with my son. My milk came in just fine, we had no problems with latching, and once I got past the initial raw-ness it was painless. My little man had a great appetite and was gaining weight, but he certainly wasn’t a chunk either. I went back to work after 8 weeks of maternity leave and struggled with the breast pump, but I had committed to myself and my son to breastfeed as long as I could, so I pushed on.
I had been back at work less than a week when I got a text from the family member caring for my son. It was of his blood-filled diaper, questioning what to do. I was completely panicked, but I managed to call the doctor and essentially told them we were on the way. I’m sure they heard the fear in my voice. A million things were racing through my head as to what could be wrong. Did I eat something bad? Did he accidentally ingest something? What kind of illness could this be? How long have I been missing his symptoms?
The doctor and nurse calmed my fears a bit. With no fever or other outward signs of illness they ruled it was most likely a dairy allergy. Blood and stool testing confirmed the prognosis. The doctor went over my options: remove dairy (and soy by his recommendation) from my diet and continue nursing OR feed him a dairy-free, soy-free formula. I had committed to breastfeeding, however formula sounded like a safe, but also expensive option. With positive reinforcement from the doctor I agreed to giving a dairy-free diet a try for a couple weeks to see how my son reacted.
I’ve never had any kind of food allergy or intolerance, so the only things I ever checked on labels were general nutrition facts. I figured this diet change meant no milk, yogurt, cheese and ice cream, but as I stood in the endless aisles of Whole Foods I realized it was so much more. Dairy and soy are in everything – and things you may not even consider. Chips. Pasta Sauce. Bread. Trail mix. EVERYTHING.
I was completely overwhelmed. I felt guilty that I had been consuming dairy, causing my son pain and not noticing the problems sooner. As a first-time mom I thought that scrunched up face he was making when he went to the bathroom was the standard ‘pooping-face,’ but it was pain. How did I not know? I got lost in Internet searches for information and support on dairy allergies in infants, which was both comforting and terrifying. I discovered that, according to Food Allergy Research & Education, “approximately 2.5% of children younger than three years of age are allergic to milk.” Fortunately, most outgrow the allergy or sensitvity as they mature. Still, it was unknown if or when my son would ever outgrow this, a daunting feeling.
I wondered how I could possibly ensure I wasn’t eating any dairy or soy. I spent hours reading the labels of every food I picked up and only left with disappointment. I came to the conclusion I would be preparing everything I ate. I have always enjoyed cooking, but I also savor the luxury of eating out, especially as a new mom. The stress I felt to ensure I knew exactly what I was consuming was exhausting. But I did it.
After three weeks of a completely dairy- and soy-free diet I could see the changes in my son. His bowel movements were much more normal, and he was filling out more than ever. All the fussiness that we thought was normal for a newborn was almost completely gone. And all of the sacrifice and work this diet took was minimized watching my son heal. As time went on the new lifestyle became habit. I followed Instagram accounts for Paleo diets that had great inspiration for meals and weekly food prep and Facebook groups for kids with allergies. I began finding a few restaurants around town that had dairy and soy-free items, making those rushed days to get out of the house a little less hectic. And the little indulgences I found (mint chocolate chip coconut milk ice cream!) were savored so much more.
By no means was any of this easy. Breastfeeding alone takes work and commitment, especially as a working mom. It was difficult to go out to dinner with my husband or over to a friend’s house to eat. I craved cheesy pizza like no other! Possibly the hardest of all was that I didn’t know anyone else that was dealing with this, so I often felt alone. Sadly, I didn’t realize how common it is.
I could have easily switched to formula and often considered it, but I was proud I could contribute to my son’s healing since I felt like I caused it. Of course I hoped he would follow the statistics and outgrow the dairy allergy, but if he didn’t I felt better equipped to understand his future lifestyle from living it myself. Add it to the list of things we sacrifice as parents in the name of our children, but I’d say it was worth it.