If baby is allergic to a particular food, the reaction is usually immediate. Food intolerance is more often delayed – usually hours and sometimes days after eating it. Parents may need help in understanding the difference and should be reassured that a suitable diet can be recommended in either case.
For any baby who has acted adversely to food, parents should be given medical advice.
Allergy involves the immune system and is increasing – around one in twenty children will develop a food allergy although nine out of ten will grow out of it by the time they are five. However, some will go on to develop allergy related conditions later in life – like hayfever, asthma or eczema.
Symptoms of food allergy are varied but the most common include sneezing, blocked or runny noses, irritation of the skin or eyes, swellings around eyes, mouth or tongue and shortness of breath or coughing. Abdominal pains, diarrhea and vomiting can also occur.
The most common causes are equally varied – eggs, milk, nuts, cereals with gluten, fish, shellfish, peanuts and soya. Even sesame seeds, mustard and celery can be responsible.
Babies are more likely to develop an allergy if there is a family history and for those considered at high risk, it may be wise to recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. When weaning, new foods should be introduced one at a time with a period of at least one day in-between to monitor possible effects.
Food intolerance is sometimes referred to as non-allergic food hypersensitivity and is an adverse reaction that happens every time a particular food is eaten. Symptoms will often involve the digestive tract and include pain, colic, wind, bloating, diarrhea or vomiting. Because the response can often be separated in time from the cause, food intolerance can sometimes be more difficult to recognize.
Between 2-7% of babies are affected by allergy to cow’s milk and even babies being fed breast milk whose mothers have consumed dairy products can be affected. Babies being fed infant formula based on cow’s milk can also develop the allergy. Hypoallergenic formulas like Hypolait should help.
Where cow’s milk is thought to be causing symptoms, it may be necessary to identify whether protein or lactose is the cause. This can affect the diet adjustments that are needed.
Although symptoms (eczema, rashes, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps) of the two causes are similar, lactose intolerance will not result in hives or breathing difficulties. Nor will it show up on a skin prick or blood test.