Allergies aren’t the first thing that jump to mind when formula-fed babies are having health problems or seem fussier than usual – they’re not even eating real food yet, so what do they have to be allergic to? Unfortunately, the cow’s milk that makes up the base of most formulas is one of the most common food allergens. It’s rare for very young babies to have food allergies, since most food allergies emerge later in life, but about 2% to 3% of infants do have milk allergies, so it can be helpful to know what to watch out for.
What is an allergy?
Babies who haven’t been introduced to solids yet but are having some trouble with what they’re ingesting are much more likely to have an allergy than an intolerance (although a lactose intolerance is still possible, especially for babies with family histories of lactose intolerance), which means that rather than just having trouble digesting certain parts of what they’re eating, their bodies actually react negatively against certain proteins or compounds.
Signs of an allergy
Allergy symptoms include:
- Skin rash: Rashes that don’t go away on their own, especially around joints, in skin folds, or around the anus. Skin rashes that are part of allergic reactions can, but do not always, look like hives.
- Digestive issues: Diarrhea, vomiting, gas, and upset stomach that causes fussiness can all potentially be allergy symptoms. These symptoms can put babies in danger of other health issues – like dehydration, weight loss, and failure to thrive – if they occur regularly or arrive and don’t go away. It’s always a good idea to consult a doctor about such issues, whether they’re allergy-related or not.
- Eczema: The red, scaly, sometimes oozing skin patches created by eczema commonly overlap with allergies.
- Ear problems: Allergies can lead to fluid build-up in the ear, which can lead to hearing problems and ear infections. Ear problems during language development can cause problems with speech and comprehension delays. Babies experiencing ear pain may be fussy or upset and may tug on their earlobes to try to relieve the feeling of pressure.
- Swelling: Allergies that cause an immediate response can sometimes cause swelling of the face, mouth, and sometimes throat. Since this swelling can cause airway obstructions, parents who notice it should seek immediate medical attention.
- Respiratory problems: Babies with constant runny nose, congestion, or sniffles can also be suffering from allergies. These issues can cause problems with sleeping patterns too.
What might Baby be allergic to?
Most babies who experience allergic reactions while formula-feeding and before solids have been introduced are allergic to dairy. Unfortunately, an allergy to milk proteins, which is what most dairy allergies are, often overlaps with soy allergies. Babies who continue to have allergic reactions after both milk and soy proteins have been removed from their diets might also have an allergy to corn. The vast majority of formula brands use some corn products, though there are a few corn-free brands.
What should I do about a formula allergy?
If you suspect your child might be having an allergic reaction to their formula, it’s definitely time to talk to a pediatrician. Since allergy symptoms can seem like other health issues – particularly colic – it’s a good idea to take careful note of the timing and pattern of any symptoms you notice in the days leading up to an appointment. A pediatrician may recommend switching formulas, speaking to an allergist, or both.
Should I switch to soy?
Though soy-based formula is a good alternative to cow’s milk-based formula for many babies who have trouble digesting milk, it doesn’t work for all babies with allergies. Some of the proteins in soy are not too different from milk proteins, and so babies who can’t process milk proteins may also have trouble processing soy proteins. Formula-fed babies who have trouble with both milk and soy proteins are generally transitioned back to a milk-based formula, but one that is either hypoallergenic or amino acid-based.
Sensitive, hypoallergenic, or amino acid-based?
Formulas designed for sensitive stomachs generally aren’t different enough from regular formula to make a difference for babies with allergies or serious intolerances. Hypoallergenic formulas are much more likely to work, but in cases where they don’t, a pediatrician may prescribe an amino acid-based formula, which is not available over the counter.
After switching formulas, parents generally start to see results within 48 hours.
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Rajesh Kumar, et al. “Early Life Eczema, Food Introduction, and Risk of Food Allergy in Children.” Pediatric Allergy, Immunology, and Pulmonology. 23(3): 175-182. September 2010. Retrieved October 26 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3281290/.
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