This has trickled down to babies at the breast. For some babies, an elimination diet is a lifesaver--both for the baby and his parents! However, when it's the go-to for pretty much any upset tummy or rash, are we doing more harm than good?
Many studies have come out in recent years that suggest that our clean, sterile environments and avoidance of allergens may be contributing to (or causing!) our poor health here in the US. For instance, a study of babies who ate peanuts earlier in infancy vs. those who wait until after a year as guidelines have recommended showed that the babies with earlier exposure are less likely to be allergic to peanuts! Autoimmune diseases are being linked to clean (sterile) environments, calling for an end to things like Clorox wipes. Pets, once considered a cause of childhood allergies, are now suggested to actually reduce the risk by over half (and kids raised on farms have less allergies, too).
Children learn about the local diet that they are going to be eating through amniotic fluid that they sample in the womb and the milk they drink at mother's breast. It makes sense, then, that places that have diets heavy in fish, such as Japan, have nearly no fish allergies (something I envy, as salmon, tilapia, sardines and several other fish all slam my throat shut like an angry teenager's bedroom door) and announcing you have such an allergy leads the people there to wonder how you can even live, as surely, you must starve if you can't eat fish! So, what does it do to a nursling's expectation for a mother to drastically change her diet to something that does not reflect what the child will grow up eating (or eat when grown up)?
I should note that at the same time, I also started adjusting for my overactive letdown/oversupply. Her poop remained green (I did not produce much foremilk, however, I believe due to my poor hydration habits), but she still had no signs of pain, the frothiness disappeared and the gas even took a step back. So, clearly, her problem was not dairy.
With my second, I didn't even think of food allergies when confronting her myriad of nursing problems. I got through them all without ever touching on the subject.
With my most recent, Kat, again, I was looking at a baby who had the symptoms of a dairy intolerance (these, by the way, are also the symptoms of overactive letdown, which is a known problem for me, so I took that into account). When blood appeared in her green, mucousy stool and she cried in pain at every bowel movement (and quite a few toots) while breaking out in an unexplained rash, I decided that I would try an elimination diet.
While I was doing this, I also worked on my overactive letdown and started pumping off some of my early milk to slow the flow (and noted that my foremilk/hindmilk was well balanced). I also forced her to block feed (she was quite opposed, but eventually allowed me to do this). The blood vanished from her stool and it started appearing seedy and turning butter yellow while losing the foul smell.
For the rash, I took all of her clothes and rewashed them in the detergent that I use for myself (Era). Voila, the rash disappeared (it recently reappeared and now I believe it was either a reaction to cinnamon or clove, as that was heavily present in my diet when the first rash appeared as well as the new one--but she also tried on clothes that were washed in the original rash-giving detergent, too! Oy!). Her diaper rash problem was solved by adding baby powder to our diapering routine.
My elimination diet was a failure, however, as I did not realize that my coffee creamer had dairy in it! I had switched without checking, as the other creamer I had been using was dairy free, so it didn't occur to me. None of her symptoms remained or returned when I reintroduced regular dairy back into my diet.
With Kat's symptoms, an elimination diet was even recommended by my pediatrician and was most definitely warranted. However, it turned out that it was not caused by a food allergy, but rather, my milk ejection reflex and laundry detergent. Had I only attempted the elimination diet, she would have continued suffering.
Right now, it seems that the first (and often only!) answer given to any nursing mother with a baby displaying digestive issue symptoms is to eliminate food. Dairy, soy, wheat, corn, eggs... there are lists available to check off one food after another in an attempt to find what's wrong with the baby. Personally, I think that LCs (no matter how many letters precede those two) need to remember to bring up other common problems as well. "Food sensitivities in breastfed babies are not nearly as common as many breastfeeding mothers have been led to think." -- Kellymom.
Elimination diets are a great tool for babies who truly do have sensitive systems, but more than simply gassiness or fussiness must be present before we go recommending that Mom cuts out what may be one of the primary sources of protein for her (we're talking milk, cheese, yogurt--all of that and more, for a dairy elimination). A dairy intolerance is not 'lactose intolerance,' but rather, difficulty processing cow milk protein.
First, as far as straining and pain with passing gas and stool: babies have to learn basically everything. That includes how to fart and poop. They do not know how to relax their sphincter and often get in their own way attempting to simply eliminate. This can cause pain and frustration. Typically, it's outgrown after a few weeks and they learn to relax instead of fighting to have a bowel movement or pass gas.
Green poop: This can be a sign of a lot of things, from allergy to letdown to hindmilk/foremilk imbalance. All of these should be considered. Blood in the stool can be caused by all of these problems as well. The position in the stool tells you whether it's internal (inside the poop, meaning it got there before being passed) or anal (outside the poop--caused by anal fissures from straining).
Symptoms of food intolerance include: fussiness and crying for extended periods, sudden waking accompanied by cries indicating pain, rash (particularly a red ring around the anus--how I identified a food allergy to strawberries in my first and spinach and broccoli in my second), hives, eczema, congestion, vomiting and unusual stools (green, mucousy and/or bloody). These area also all symptoms of other problems, so experimentation may be needed.
If baby displays these symptoms within four to twenty-four hours of you eating a new food, there's a good chance that baby is experiencing a reaction to the food. Usually, symptoms will pass within a few hours if it is a new food. Symptoms that are ongoing indicate a regular food in mom's diet.
In closing, my thoughts are that while elimination diets have their place, like any other treatment or tool, they can and are being abused by well-meaning mothers and their breastfeeding counselors. I think that starting an elimination diet without real symptoms (just over normal baby developmental issues) is not the best idea and may actually be doing baby a disservice when it is used as a first recourse.
I am not calling for an end to elimination diets--far from it. Babies who are diagnosed 'lactose intolerant' (a pet peeve of mine) or 'allergic to human milk' (flat out impossible, however while galactosemia and similar conditions obviously exist, they are not an 'allergy') would definitely benefit from mom figuring out what it is in her milk that is causing the reaction. And mothers are good at identifying that something is 'wrong' (far better than society gives them credit for). These are just my observations that I wanted to share as an alternative 'food for thought.'
Did an elimination diet help your baby? Did you try one and have it fail? Did you wish that you had been given more options?