Lactose intolerance in babies

Lactose intolerance in babies

At some point in the first couple of months of life, approximately 65% of all babies, regardless of whether they're breast or bottle fed, will experience some lactose deficiency without any harm.

There is consistently 7% lactose in your breast milk, which cannot be altered regardless of dietary restrictions - reducing dairy from your diet will have no affect on the amount of lactose in your breast milk.

While it is uncommon, there are some babies who are born without any lactase enzymes, and so they have no ability to break down lactose. These babies should be put onto a lactose-free formula to assist them with their lactose intolerance. Much more common in babies, is secondary lactose intolerance as a result of gastroenteritis. In this case, it may be helpful to use a lactose-free formula for a couple of weeks to allow your baby's small intestines to recover.

Is my baby lactose intolerant?

There are various ways to test for lactose intolerance, including:

  • Hydrogen breath test. This tests the amount of hydrogen that is breathed out. When the undigested lactose begins fermenting in the gut, hydrogen is produced.
  • Elimination diet. This should only be done under the guidance of a specialist, and involves removing lactose rich foods from your baby's diet to see if her symptoms improve. If the symptoms reappear once the foods are reintroduced, then it is most likely that she has lactose intolerance.
  • Comparison test. A cheap and simple 'test' you can do at home is to give your baby lactose-free milk, and watch to see if she can tolerate it better than regular milk.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose is a sugar that is present in cow's milk and other dairy products. For most people, lactose is broken down with the help of an enzyme called lactase, and while most animals stop producing lactase when they are weaned, because we continue to drink milk throughout our lives, our bodies continue to produce lactase. People who suffer from lactose intolerance don't produce enough lactase to deal with the lactose. The undigested lactose then begins to be broken down by the bacteria in the gut which starts a fermentation process that can produce excessive wind and abdominal pain.

Lactose intolerance is quite common in people from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and some Mediterranean countries, as well as Australian Aborigines, but is uncommon is Caucasians (about 5% in Australia). As a result many Caucasian babies are incorrectly diagnosed with lactose intolerance.

It is much more common for your baby to get secondary lactose intolerance, which is a temporary condition that occurs as a result of gastroenteritis, when the lining of the gut is damaged. This form of lactose intolerance will improve after a couple of weeks.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance include:

  • excessive wind
  • diarrhoea
  • abdominal pain
  • abdominal swelling

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This article was written by Ella Walsh for Kidspot - New Zealand's parenting resource for newborns and baby. Sources include Vic. Govt's Better Health Channel.

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