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Food Sensitivities in Babies and Children

In a young infant, food sensitivity may manifest itself through colicky symptoms–anything from unnatural, persistent fussiness, to inconsolable, ear-piercing screams that may go on for hours at a time. The baby might develop unexplained skin rashes–a possible giveaway that the breastfed infant’s gastric system is reacting to foods that his or her mother eats; to ingredients in formula, in the case of a bottle-fed baby; or to foods from a complementary diet, if the baby has begun eating solid foods.

In an older child, the list of possible indicators that the child has food sensitivities is quite a bit longer; it includes such symptoms as headaches, stomach ache, runny nose, sneezing, loose stool, chronic cold, chronic ear infection, constipation, skin rash, asthma, irritability or lethargy.

What Is the Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Sensitivity?

A food allergy involves a response by a person’s immune system. An allergic reaction usually takes place not long after the food is consumed, anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or two after ingestion. When the body mistakes a protein or proteins in the food as harmful, it releases germ-fighting organisms, called antibodies, which proceed to fight the offending food. An allergic reaction can result in a rash or hives, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling of the tongue, and even swelling of the airways to the lungs–a potentially deadly reaction.

A food sensitivity takes longer to manifest itself–up to three days after eating the food–so, it’s a little trickier to pinpoint. However, the symptoms are not as potentially severe as those of an allergic reaction. Food sensitivities can result in nausea, stomach pain, gas, cramps, vomiting, heartburn, diarrhea, headaches, irritability, or nervousness.

Food allergies affect close to four percent of American teens and adults, and five percent of American children. But food sensitivities, also called food intolerances, are much more common, with nearly everyone having experienced and adverse reaction to a food they ate at some point in their lives. Lactose intolerance, the most common food sensitivity, affects close to 10 percent of all Americans.

What Causes Food Sensitivities?

In some instances, a person may lack the necessary enzymes to properly digest certain proteins in foods, as is the case with lactose intolerance. Also common are intolerances to artificial chemicals that are added to foods to provide color, enhance taste, or slow spoilage.

Another factor that can lead to food intolerances is repetitive eating-eating the same foods every day.

In the case of breastfed infants, traces of gas-producing cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and others) from the mother’s diet may be passed on to the baby through the milk, causing stomach discomfort. Some nursing moms find that consuming dairy products or spicy foods makes their babies gassy or irritable. Babies who drink formula, on the other hand, may be sensitive to one or more proteins in cow’s milk, if the formula contains cow’s milk or any of its proteins.

Question: How Are Food Sensitivities Diagnosed?

Answer: Mostly through trial and error. You may be asked by your pediatrician to keep a “food and symptom diary,” to record what you eat, if you’re a nursing mom, and how your baby responds to nursing. Similarly, taking written daily notes on what your older child eats, and how he or she feels and behaves afterward, will help you pinpoint sensitivities.

Your doctor may also order food allergy and sensitivity tests to be performed on your child. Some of these tests can be run through standard laboratories, while others are run through specialty labs.

Elimination and Rotation Diets

If you suspect that your baby has food sensitivity, you will want to eliminate from your diet the foods that you believe are unsettling your baby’s stomach or causing visible symptoms such as rashes.

In the case of an older child, you’ll want to start making a list of all the foods that he or she consumes–no matter how small the amounts–and how these foods affect him or her. Jot down any physical symptoms or consistent, undesirable changes in their behavior. In school-age children, keep tabs on how your child behaves at school–whether there appear to be any behavioral or other problems after the child consumes a certain food, including foods and snacks that he or she may be given at school (even if it’s just, say, a couple of graham crackers).

Whether you’re nursing a baby or whether your child is older, a good place to start is by eliminating foods that are known to be problematic for some people: Gluten-containing grains (wheat, barley, spelt, rye), peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans), soy, milk, eggs, corn, refined sugar, and yeast. In addition to eliminating these, consider removing overly processed foods, chemical additives, artificial colors and preservatives, and caffeine (including colas and chocolate). In the case of nursing moms, you should avoid any alcohol and may want to refrain from eating cruciferous vegetables.

Here, it’s important to point out that you must be mindful to replace whatever nutrients you or your child are losing when you remove those foods from the diet, by eating other foods that offer similar nutritional benefits–even if only until you figure out what’s giving your baby or your child problems. You may wish to discuss appropriate food substitutes with your physician. Also, there’s no better time than this for you or your older child to take a multivitamin.

Once you’ve started your elimination diet, doctors recommend that you wait four or five days for all traces of your customary foods to be out of your system or your older child’s system.

When the sensitivity symptoms have lessened, you can begin to reintroduce the foods you think your infant or child is sensitive to, one at a time. Some experts recommend that each food be eaten by itself, in the morning, before you or your child eats anything else. This would be a good time to pay attention to how your baby responds after nursing, or how your older child responds after consuming the food. If the breastfed baby or older child has no adverse symptoms, that food is probably safe for them. This way, you’ll be able to identify the foods that are a problem.

If a child does show sensitivity symptoms when he or she eats a certain food (or your baby reacts to a food you eat), avoid that food for a period of two to four weeks. Reintroduce it then in smaller amounts. If there continues to be a problem, you may have to continue avoiding that food for several weeks at a time, until the food no longer gives your baby or older child problems. Some food sensitivities are temporary; but in some cases, foods will have to be avoided permanently.

If your breastfed infant or older child experiences no adverse reaction to a food, you can incorporate that food into the rotation diet that you or your child will now eat.

A rotation diet is divided into four days. It is a nutritious eating program based on the elimination diet–the foods you will now be eating only once every few weeks.

In a rotation diet, you want to eat a variety of foods each day, many of which you or your child might not have consumed previously or regularly. You should look for organic fruits and vegetables, and protein-rich foods. Eat foods from at least three different food groups at each meal, for optimal nutrition. Raw or lightly steamed vegetables, green leafy vegetables, fresh fruit, fish, and poultry are all excellent choices. You and your older child should also drink plenty of water.

After Day Four, go back to Day One.

A rotation diet ensures that no one food is eaten more than once every four days; rotating and diversifying food intake in such a way will actually prevent new sensitivities from developing.

A rotation diet has benefits to offer the entire family, not only those affected by food sensitivities. It provides a variety of fresh, nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods. This type of ideal diet can prevent and sometimes even correct digestive problems.