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Does Your Baby Have an Allergy To Baby Formula?

Katlyn Joy |10, August 2011


Your baby is fussy, particularly around feeding times and seems to have tummy troubles. Does this mean your infant has an allergy to the formula you are feeding him?

Symptoms of a Milk Allergy in Infants

  • Diarrhea or loose bowel movements, possibly with blood present in stool
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Hives
  • Wheezing or other respiratory symptoms
  • Swelling
  • Itchy raised areas on the skin
  • Rarely, anaphylaxis can occur with a milk allergy and those symptoms are low blood pressure, severe respiratory symptoms and swelling especially of the tongue, mouth and throat.

With a milk allergy symptoms may set in quickly, immediately following ingestion, or may be delayed as long as a week after consuming milk products.

While many people confuse lactose intolerance with a milk allergy, they are actually different. Lactose intolerance means difficulty digesting the lactose or sugar in milk and is unusual among infants. Milk allergy is when the immune system sees milk protein as an enemy to the system and tries to fight off the protein causing an allergic reaction.

Milk allergies are set off by the cow's milk in infant formula, or most commercial infant formulas. Milk allergies, unlike lactose intolerance, is more common in infants than adults and affects an estimated 2 to 3 percent of all infants. However, most infants will outgrow their allergy to milk protein. If a child is going to outgrow the allergy, typically this will happen by 5 or 6 years of age.

Risk Factors

While it's not completely understood why some infants develop milk allergies and others do not, many researchers believe genetics play a major role. Also infants who are exclusively breastfeed have a lowered risk of developing the allergy than formula-fed babies.

What to Do If You Suspect a Milk Allergy

Make an appointment with your child's pediatrician if you have concerns, but if your child is extremely serious symptoms or seems to be losing weight or becomes lethargic, don't wait for an appointment, get to the ER.

If you see your pediatrician regarding suspected milk allergies, expect the doctor to gather information about medical history in the family especially allergy history. A physical exam will also be conducted. Unfortunately there is no definitive test to diagnose milk allergies.

It's likely a doctor will order tests such as stool test and blood work but also perhaps an allergy skin test. This skin test involves placing a tiny amount of milk protein under the skin with a needle. Should a raised area appear on the skin, also known as a wheal, milk allergy will be strongly suspected as a culprit for your infant's discomfort.
Another test is the oral challenge test. For this you will be asked to keep all milk products out of baby's diet for a week. Then you will feed the baby milk formula and observe for reactions and symptoms.

Treatment of Milk Allergies

If you suspect a milk allergy, it is best to contact your pediatrician immediately, so that she can start treatment and provide advice for preventing the allergic reaction. Breastfeeding mothers may be asked to restrict dairy products in their own diet to avoid passing on milk proteins to the infant. You may consult with a nutritionist about how to avoid milk products while getting sufficient calcium and vitamin D.

Your pediatrician may suggest switching to a soy formula and observe whether baby tolerates it well. Or she may suggest switching to a hypoallergenic formula. There are two main types of these, amino acid-based formulas and hydrolyzed formulas. Hydrolyzed are typically tried first. These formulas contain milk proteins that have been broken down into small particles, making them much less likely to incite an allergic reaction than other formulas. Amino acid-based formulas are usually introduced should baby react to the hydrolyzed formulas.


Partially hydrolyzed formulas while commercially available are not recommended as they are likely to cause symptoms in allergic babies. Goats milk, rice or almond milks are not suitable substitutes for formula even for highly allergic infants. The Food and Drug Administration must oversee the production of infant formula due to the very specialized nature of formulation.

Should you switch to an alternative formula under doctor's supervision, anticipate a week or two of symptoms to continue, in lessening amounts until the process of switching has been successful and the allergic reactions have subsided.

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