Breastfeeding and Food Allergies

Today I’d like to write a little bit about why you might want to breastfeed a baby with food allergies.  Now we all know that breastmilk gives your baby the best start in life and all that jazz, but that’s not what this post is about.  It’s about having a baby with food allergies and having to make the choice between breast and bottle.  Having been through that myself, I wanted other parents to know that breastfeeding a baby with food allergies is entirely possible and has a lot of benefits.

Power to the breastfeeding mamas of babies with allergies! You rock!

When not to breastfeed a baby with food allergies

First of all, if your baby has very severe reactions (i.e. requiring hospitalisation) then you might be advised to stop breastfeeding immediately.  This is because it can take weeks for food allergens to completely get out of your system and your breastmilk.  It might be possible to pump and dump your milk during this time if you are really determined (you would need to do it around the clock to maintain your milk supply).  You will need to seek doctor’s advice on this and lots of support.  Otherwise, read on…

Build your knowledge of safe foods

The major problem with breastfeeding a baby with food allergies, is that you may need to cut all of the foods your baby is or could be allergic to out of your own diet.  If it’s a common food like dairy or wheat, I’ll be honest, it can be tough.  If your baby has multiple allergies, it’s downright miserable at times.  You will have to sit and watch people eat cake while you munch on raisins.  Eating out is a pain in the backside.  You can’t cheat *ever* as you know you will make your baby ill. You will have to read the ingredients on every single item of food you eat.  Visiting friends or family for dinner will require military style planning.

However, there is great benefit to going through all of this! Your baby will have to avoid all of those foods when they start weaning, and you will have to go through all of that hassle anyway, so why not start now?  By the time your baby does start on solids you will have extensive knowledge of all their safe foods.  Plus you will know which ‘free from’ foods taste good and which ones don’t.  And your friends and family will already be up to speed with your baby’s needs.

Breastmilk is wonderful stuff!

Breastmilk is more nutritionally complete, which is even more important if your baby is on a restricted diet.  It also varies with time (even within a single feed!) to perfectly meet your baby’s nutritional needs.  Breastmilk also contains non-nutritional benefits for your baby’s immune system.  You can read a full explanation of the immune benefits from the Infant Nutrition Council (I’m no scientist).  Since allergies are a problem with the immune system overreacting and attacking food as if it is a foreign invader, babies with allergies may benefit even more from breastfeeding as long as possible. Formula milk is of course perfectly adequate if you choose to use it and contains all the necessary nutrients.  However it doesn’t change over time to meet your baby’s needs and doesn’t have the immune system benefits.

Increasing choice

‘Free from’ food nowadays is better than ever before, and new products are coming on the market all the time.  There are more and more new specialist brands making free from foods, and many of the supermarkets are bringing out their own products.  It’s also getting better for people with multiple allergies as the free from aisle doesn’t just mean gluten free, but increasingly dairy, soya and egg free as well (always check the packaging to be sure).

Food challenges

Breastfeeding also gives you a really gentle way to do food challenges, when the time comes.  Check with your healthcare practitioner for advice on your individual baby’s needs.  If you’re advised that you’re safe to do food challenges at home, you could start by eating a small amount of the allergen in question yourself. Then wait two to three days and see if your baby has a reaction.  The amount of the allergen that goes through in your breastmilk will be less than if your baby ate the food directly, so you can very gradually build up your baby’s tolerance to that food.

Less hassle

Breastfeeding means you won’t be reliant on prescription formula.  You’ll never run out.  You’ll never have to drive to three different pharmacies to get your baby’s milk because they’re out of stock everywhere.  You won’t have to remember to get repeat prescriptions.  You won’t ever have to argue with a doctor that you need more milk than usual because your baby is on a growth spurt.  It’s just there all the time.

Still thinking of stopping breastfeeding?

Prescription formula is not a magic bullet.  It can take time to find the right one that suits your baby, that they won’t react to.  They may also need medication to help them tolerate it.  It’s still made from cow’s milk – the thing that your baby is allergic to.  It’s also extremely processed.  If you’re anything like me, you’re not keen on the idea of giving babies processed food.

It’s a myth that you need prescription formula for cooking once your baby starts on solids.  Nowadays, there are so many different plant based milks out there.  And prescription formula doesn’t taste very nice!  Why not try soy milk , almond milk, coconut milk, hemp milk, oat milk, rice milk, cashew milk or flax milk? There is so much choice available these days.  All of these milks behave a little differently in cooking but can be substituted easily in most recipes.

Tips and tricks

My experience of breastfeeding a baby with food allergies was that it was a really, really steep learning curve.  However I did find lots of nice things to eat, and I had lots of fun trying new things.  The first time you go food shopping it will take you two hours while you examine all the food labels.  After that it gets easier as you will learn what you can and can’t have.  Also, there are tons of cookbooks around at the moment that cater for vegan/gluten free/paleo/’clean eating’ diets as all of these are quite trendy. Yes, people actually give up these foods voluntarily!  It’s a chance to try new recipes and experiment a bit.  Meal planning also really, really helps.

Remember to ask for advice: If you’re dairy and/or egg free, ask a vegan friend about foods that are accidentally vegan, (like chocolate bourbons and Ritz crackers) and which restaurants are best for eating out.  If you’re wheat or gluten free, ask someone with coeliac disease.

I’m not saying that mums whose babies have food allergies *should* breastfeed, only that they can do it for as long as they would like to, if they want to.  It is hard work but you will have to do the hard work when your baby starts weaning anyway, so I didn’t see that as a reason not to try.  Personally I felt that the benefits of breastfeeding outweighed the disadvantages.  Our paediatrician encouraged me to breastfeed for two years (I managed 23 months).  Food allergies are not in themselves a reason to stop breastfeeding, if you want to carry on.

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