When my youngest daughter was almost 4 months old, I was shocked to see some streaks of blood and mucus mixed in with her stool one afternoon, especially because she wasn’t ill. My shock quickly subsided and was replaced by worry. Not worry because I thought something was seriously wrong with her (as a pediatrician, I was fairly certain it was a sign that she was reacting to something in my diet that was making its way into my breastmilk – rather than anything truly life-threatening). But I did worry about how this would affect my goal of breastfeeding her as long as my older two children (at least until age 1).
It turned out that milk-protein from dairy foods in my diet was the culprit of my daughter’s problem. I went strictly dairy-free immediately, and I found myself with a whole new level of respect for anyone who has a reactions to food – but especially for those breastfeeding moms who are eliminating foods for the sake of their child. I can tell you, reading labels sucks and while I considered myself to be fairly savvy when it came to the food that I was feeding myself and my family, let me tell you, labels are tricky. And they’re especially tricky when you’re dealing with something like dairy that is hidden in so many foods (even those that are labelled “non-dairy”). Going to the grocery store can easily take you two-to-three times as long as it normally does.
Some days, as I worked my way through my grocery list, I found myself thinking of some of my patients whose moms had to eliminate multiple foods from their diet. It sure seems as though there should be some sort of official reward for them! The hardest time was during the holidays when I was at a get-together, and I couldn’t eat most of our traditional holiday treats due to dairy being present in them. It was really hard, but I found ways to meet most of my cravings (although I have to say, there is nothing like a real latte and real cheese on pizza). Whenever I was feeling particularly challenged, I just remembered who I was doing this for, and it helped keep it all in perspective.
Despite my issues with adjusting my diet, my bigger struggle was trying to make sure I was keeping up with my daughter’s breastmilk needs as I was recently back at work full time when this happened. As with my older two children, I had “pumped like crazy” during my maternity leave to build up a good store of frozen breastmilk that we could tap into on the days that I didn’t have the chance to pump enough at work. Now, those hundreds of ounces of breastmilk were off limits for the next 5-6 months as it wasn’t dairy-free and feeding it to her could trigger a return of the inflammation in her intestines. I was already one of those moms that kept track of the ounces of milk we sent to daycare very carefully and would cringe if I knew more than an ½ ounce was dumped for any reason. This made me even more strict about it. I was lucky that my daughter really preferred breastfeeding, so while she would take some bottles at daycare, she preferred to nurse, and there were many days those months that I would race to pick her up after work and nurse her right there in the baby room when I got there. We would often nurse twice in the morning before I left for work, and I tried to continue to sneak in extra pumping sessions at home whenever I could.
I’m proud to be able to say that my daughter is now 14 months old and has fully outgrown her dairy sensitivity. I’ve welcomed cheese and lattes back into my diet with open arms. More importantly, we managed to make my goal of breastfeeding her past age one. In fact, although she weaned herself from nursing about one month ago (that was a sad week for me), she is still working her way through the supply of frozen milk. We just pulled the last container of frozen milk baggies from the freezer this weekend!
So, to all of you moms out there dealing with dietary restrictions, know that although difficult, it is possible. Just remember to do what you can, and remember why it’s all worth it in the end.
Dr. Carleen Hanson is a pediatrician at Meriter Monona. She is a Certified Breastfeeding Specialist and has a special interest in working with moms on their own breastfeeding journey.