Symptoms and Managing Cows Milk Protein Allergy for Baby

by | Oct 10, 2019

Around 3 months old, my son was diagnosed with a milk protein allergy. We noticed it the first time he was given regular dairy formula and had a severe reaction to it.

The good news is that he just turned 1 and is able to drink whole milk on a regular basis, however, he is still having some issues with other dairy products, including cheese and yogurt.

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Managing your child's cows milk protein allergy or dairy intolerence doesn't have to be hard. Here are some signs to look out for and ways to manage it.

What is a milk protein allergy?

A milk allergy in babies occurs when his or her immune system overreacts to the proteins in cows milk. The immune system typically fights against infections in the body, but it confuses the milk protein with a harmful invader. Therefore, it ends up flaring up an immune response or allergic reaction.

Most standard baby formulas are made with cows milk so if your child has an allergy, you will see the signs and symptoms early on. You can also notice the allergy in a breastfed baby if you are ingesting dairy in your own diet.

The milk protein allergy is most common in babies and young children. The good news is that they typically outgrow it by ages 3-5, with most being over it by 1 year.

Cows milk protein allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance, although they are often confused. Milk allergy usually starts early on and is outgrown. Lactose intolerance can start in later childhood or even adulthood and occurs when your body doesn’t have enough of the enzyme Lactase, which is needed to break down the lactose in milk.

How I realized my baby had a milk protein allergy

I had planned to breastfeed my baby right after birth until as close to 1 year old as I could get. He latched quickly and easily and I breastfed him exclusively for the first couple days.

However, we became aware that our son had elevated bilirubin and newborn jaundice that needed to be resolved. In order to get rid of the jaundice in his system, it was recommended that we supplement with formula.

Therefore, during the first 2 weeks of his life, he took regular dairy Similac formula. He took this formula absolutely fine and had no reaction to it.

I breastfed him for the next 6 months. I maintained a regular diet, not avoiding any foods or ingredients (even dairy). He did great with breast milk until I started offering formula again.

Around 3 or 4 months, I tried to give a bottle of formula here and there when I needed a break from nursing. That is when I started to notice that something was wrong.

After drinking a couple ounces of regular formula, he threw up. Not once, not twice, but about five times in one night. Projectile, vile throw up that I had never seen before.

He threw up everything in his little body until he had nothing left. It was terrifying. I never saw a baby throw up this much. After he threw up so much, he wanted nothing to do with breastmilk so I was concerned about him getting enough milk to drink.

I thought that it had to be a stomach bug or virus because I gave him the same formula that he had as a 1 week old with no issues. So I gave him another bottle of the formula the next day. Same thing happened.

Still unsure if it was from the formula, I gave him another bottle a week later, but with just 1 oz of formula added to the breastmilk. Again, projectile vomitting 5-6 times after just 1oz of formula!

This time I knew it was an allergy to the formula because there was for sure no virus in his system. He seemed fine right after all the throwing up.

I consulted with his pediatrician and he advised us to switch to a non-dairy formula. Enfamil Nutramigen and Similac Allamentum are the two most common non-dairy formulas.

Once we started giving him the Nutramigen, he took it fine without any reaction. Therefore, we were able to conclude that the committing issue came from dairy.

Starting solids with a milk protein allergy

I waited until 6 months old to start him on solids. I wanted to follow a baby led weaning approach to feeding and it’s been shown that babies do better at digesting food once they are 6 months old.

I still wasn’t sure if he had a true milk allergy or if it was just the formula that he was intolerant of. Therefore, I went ahead and introduced dairy at 6 months. I gave him cheese, yogurt, and milk in scrambled eggs and smoothies.

He did fine with it for the first few weeks with no reaction at all. I was excited that he was grown out of it or that it wasn’t a true milk allergy.

After a month or two, I started to notice that he would get little red bumps (hives) around his mouth after he would eat certain cheeses or yogurt. However, he remained completely fine with the milk in scrambled eggs and smoothies.

These hives ranged from small and just one or two on his face to large ones with 5 or 6 on his face or body. After noticing these signs, I gave him Benadryl to stop the allergic response as quickly as possible.

My physician advised that I wait until closer to 1 year to try dairy again. He clearly has an allergy, but babies typically start outgrowing them around 1. So we waited.

Milk protein allergy symptoms for baby

Symptoms can vary from person to person and with each exposure. They could have just one little hive one time, but the next time have a severe vommitting reaciton.

It’s smart to keep a diary or remember what foods you gave your child before the reaction happened. This will help you determine if it is indeed an allergic reaction or just an illness. If they had a dairy product (milk, cheese, or yogurt) right before the reaction, you’ll know that it’s the milk protein allergy.

Each child also varies on the severity of allergy they have. Some babies may have a reaction only if they eat 4 pieces of cheese, whereas another baby may have it if they even have one tiny bite.

Here are some common symptoms that your child may experience with a milk protein allergy:

  • itchy, watery, or swollen eyes
  • hives
  • swelling
  • wheezing
  • trouble breathing
  • coughing
  • hoarseness
  • throat tightness
  • stomach upset
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • a drop in blood pressure causing lightheadedness
  • blood in the stool
  • refusal to eat
  • irritability or colic

How to manage a milk protein allergy in your baby

When I breastfed my baby, I ate everything (dairy included) and he did not have a problem. Once we started formula (around 9 months), I had to give him the non-dairy formula to avoid a reaction.

Once my son turned 1 and was allowed to drink whole milk, I was nervous that he would have a reaction to it. I originally bought a milk alternative, but mixed it with a tiny bit of whole milk and he was completely fine.

Here are ways to manage your baby’s dairy allergy.

  • Eliminate dairy products from your diet if breastfeeding
  • Use non-dairy formula, like Enfamil Nutramigen and Similac Allamentum
  • Slowly introduce dairy products when your child is closer to 1 (one bite at each meal and gradually increasing)
  • Use milk alternatives (listed below) if your child is 1 and still has an allergy to whole milk
  • Slowly introduce whole milk at age 1, starting with just 1 oz mixed with their tolerated formula or milk alternative
  • Keep Benadryl on hand at all times. Use it for mild to severe reactions
  • If their allergy is severe, keep an epinephrine auto-injectors (epi pen) on hand

What to do if your baby has an allergic reaction to dairy

Cows milk protein allergy may or may not be serious, depending on your child. It’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid dairy items, but always be prepared if a reaction happens.

If you notice your baby starting to get red bumps, hives, or any of the above symptoms, discontinue the dairy product immediately. You can give your baby or toddler Benadryl to stop the reaction. If your baby has a serious milk allergy, keep an Epi-Pen on you in case of a severe reaction (anaphylaxis).

Alternative options to milk

For your baby, the best formula for milk protein allergy is Enfamil Nutramigen and Similac Allamentum. They both don’t contain dairy so your child should be safe with these options.

There are soy-based formulas as well, but unfortunately most children that have a dairy allergy will be allergic to soy, as well. Also, there have been studies that infants who consumed soy-based formula as newborns had differences in some reproductive-system cells and tissues. Therefore, it’s best to avoid soy.

When your child reaches 1, they will switch from formula to milk. It’s best to attempt whole milk first because that is the best option for your toddler.

If you feel safer trying it in the presence of your doctor, do that. Start small and use milk mixed with formula for your first attempt, gradually increasing the amount if they do well.

If you try milk and your child still has an allergic reaction, there are plenty of alternatives and plant-based milks. However, it is important to note that some of these other options don’t contain the same amount of protein, fat, vitamins, and nutrients that cows milk does.

Your options are:

Soy Milk

Soy milk is made from combining ground soy beans and water. It contains close to the same number of calories, protein and fat as reduced-fat cow’s milk. However, soy milk does not naturally contain the same amount of calcium, vitamin D and vitamin A as cow’s milk, unless it is fortified.

Therefore, if you’re going to opt for soy milk, go with the fortified, low sugar option to get the most nutrients that your toddler needs without the added sugar. Soybean crops are often heavily treated with pesticides, so an organic product may be preferred.

There is also a debate among researchers for the presence of isoflavones in soy products. These products have been associated with problematic stimulation of the reproductive systems in humans. Therefore, it is not highly recommended that soy milk and soy infant formulas be given to babies and toddlers.

Nut milks

Nut beverages include almond, cashew, coconut, and macadamia and they all range in calorie, protein and fat content. It’s important to select varieties that have been fortified with vitamins and minerals and that contain little added sugar.

Nut milks are deficient in Vitamin B12 and have very little protein, but they do offer plenty of health benefits. Of all the nut milks, almond milk is the most nutritious. Almonds have natural vitamin E. Coconut milk has a good fat source and a pleasantly sweet taste, however, it doesn’t offer much more. Macadamia milk is higher in calcium and vitamin E than other nut milk sources, but has no protein.

Grain milks

Grain milks include rice milk, oat milk, flax milk and hemp milk. They offer the natural benefit of fiber from the grain, hut little protein.

Hemp milk contains natural protein, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamin E and is high in omega fats. This milk contain no THC (the active psychogenic agent in marijuana). Oat milk is another alternative, however it doesn’t contain the essential nutrients needed for a developing toddler.

Rice milk is a low fat, low protein, and lactose-free option, however the nutritional value of rice milk is very small. Flax milk contains no saturated fat and no protein, but does contain omega-3 fatty acids. Most have added sugars and some have added protein from other sources.

Vegetable milk

Pea milk has a smooth taste similar to cow’s milk. It contains calcium and vitamin D, plus has the same amount of protein per ounce as cow’s milk. You can find this option without sweeteners, as well.

Animal-based: Goat

Goat milk is similar in composition to human breast milk and it contains many of the proteins like cow’s milk, including lactose. Therefore, kids with cow’s milk allergy will most likely have similar problems with goat milk. Goat milk contains no iron, folate, or vitamin B12. If goat milk is going to be your choice, a multivitamin is necessary.

Related post: How to Transition Your Baby from a Bottle to a Sippy Straw Cup

When do babies outgrow milk protein allergy?

The good news is that children do not typically retain a cows milk protein allergy forever or even that far into childhood. They typically outgrow it by ages 3-5, with most being over it by 1 year.

When to try dairy again

Consult with your physician about introducing dairy products into your child’s diet once again. Depending on the severity of the reaction, you should be able to slowly let your baby or toddler try it.

After reintroducing dairy at 6 months, 9 months, and 12 months, each time I noticed that he became a little more tolerant of some items.

The final word

I thought that it was so strange that my son’s milk protein allergy came and went. He didn’t have it as a newborn, but got it around 3 months. He is now 1 and able to drink cows milk daily, but breaks out severely when ingesting cheese or yogurt.

If your child is still battling a cow’s milk allergy as he gets older, talk to your doctor about using a turmeric supplement. The anti-inflammatory activity of turmeric can help fight off many allergy-related symptoms.

Hi I’m Marissa!

A mom of two little ones, here to provide some relatable experiences, tips, and tricks to the joys and challenges of pregnancy and childbirth through raising babies and toddlers.  Read more about me here.