Breastfeeding, Dairy Products, and Infant Milk Allergies

What to Do If Your Baby Is Sensitive to the Protein in Cow's Milk

Pretty young mom carrying a breastfeeding baby with baby carrier in the street
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In This Article

Many breastfeeding moms worry that drinking milk or eating cheese, ice cream, or yogurt will cause sensitivities and allergic reactions in their babies. It's true that much of the food that you eat does travel into your breast milk. While most babies will never react to any of the foods in their mother's diet, some will. And when a child does have a reaction to something in breast milk, the culprit is often cow's milk.

Symptoms

The most common symptoms of a cow's milk sensitivity in a breastfed baby are stomach-related. These symptoms could make your baby very irritable or fussy. 

The proteins in cow's milk can cause gas in a baby's stomach and intestines, which can lead to pain, vomiting, or diarrhea. A food allergy could also cause reflux, symptoms of colic, a rash or hives, and bloody poop. If your child is in pain or has any of these symptoms, call the doctor.

When speaking with your healthcare providers, try to be as detailed as possible when you're describing what's going on with your baby. The more information the doctor has (such as whether there is a family history of food allergies), the easier it will be to narrow down the cause. These symptoms may have causes other than an allergy.

Dairy Allergy vs. Lactose Intolerance

A cow's milk allergy is not the same as lactose intolerance. A baby with an allergy to cow's milk is reacting to the protein in dairy. Lactose is a sugar, not a protein. It's unusual for a newborn or infant to be sensitive to lactose—which is typically seen in adults or older children. If your baby does have a milk allergy, lactose-free dairy products will still cause a reaction.

Dairy Allergy and Formula

If your baby breastfeeds and takes formula, a cow's milk-based formula can cause the same milk allergy symptoms. It may even be worse. You should talk to your child's health care provider about changing your baby's formula. Soy formula is an option, but it can also cause allergies in some infants who are allergic to the cow's milk protein. A hypoallergenic formula may be the way to go.

How to Reduce Baby's Symptoms

You don't have to stop breastfeeding because of a suspected sensitivity to cow's milk protein. If your baby's symptoms aren't too bad, you can eliminate cow's milk from your diet, along with common dairy foods like cheese, yogurt, and butter.

If your baby's symptoms are more severe, your doctor may recommend that you don't consume anything with cow's milk in it. Once you eliminate these foods, you may see improve ment in as little as a few days. But it can take two to three weeks to see results.

If, after two weeks of a dairy-free diet, you do not see any difference and your child is still showing signs of an allergy, then dairy is probably not the cause of your baby's issues. Another allergen, or another medical condition, may be the problem. But if you do see improvement, then do your best to stay on the dairy-free diet.

Dairy-Free Breastfeeding Diet

There are many substitutes for cow's milk and milk products available. Just look for dairy-free on the labels at the grocery store. Since milk is a known allergen, it must be identified on food labels. Remember that milk can be found in many different products, including soups, salad dressing, and baked goods, so you have to stay vigilant in the supermarket.

You may be surprised to find that you like some dairy-free options better. You may even feel better yourself once you eliminate dairy. But keep in mind that even though a reaction to cow's milk is the more common one, soy and nuts can also cause allergies in breastfed babies. And you'll need to be careful that you consume enough calcium from non-dairy sources.

Reintroducing Dairy

You don't necessarily have to stay away from dairy for as long as you decide to breastfeed. If your baby has a sensitivity to cow's milk, once you've eliminated all the dairy and your child is feeling better, you can wait a few weeks or months, then slowly reintroduce some dairy products back into your diet.

If your baby starts to react, you can stop the dairy once again. Keep trying every few weeks or so, and as your baby gets older, he may be able to tolerate it more and more. You may also need to watch for food allergies which are less common, but they can be more serious.

Discuss the reintroduction of cow's milk into your diet with your child's doctor. You may have to remain dairy-free until you wean your child, or you may be able to reintroduce dairy under the doctor's direct supervision. 

A Word From Verywell

The longer you can continue to breastfeed your baby, the better. However, it can be exhausting and difficult to care for a child who cries frequently and appears to be in pain, especially if you don't have much support. Elimination diets are often quite challenging too.

Talk to your partner, your doctor, and your baby's doctor to get all the information you need to make the best choice you can for you, your child, and your family. Sometimes that means weaning your baby. After a period of healing, if you decide to try breastfeeding again, you certainly can. 

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Article Sources
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  1. University of Michigan Health System, "Cow's Milk Sensitivity in Babies"

  2. Hill DJ, Roy N, Heine RG, Hosking CS, Francis DE, Brown J, Speirs B, Sadowsky J, Carlin JB. Effect of a low-allergen maternal diet on colic among breastfed infants: a randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics. 2005 Nov 1;116(5):e709-15. DOI:

    10.1542/peds.2005-0147

  3. Greer FR, Sicherer SH, Burks AW. Effects of early nutritional interventions on the development of atopic disease in infants and children: the role of maternal dietary restriction, breastfeeding, timing of introduction of complementary foods, and hydrolyzed formulas. Pediatrics. 2008. Jan 1;121(1):183-91.

Additional Reading
  • Protocol AB. ABM clinical protocol# 24: allergic proctocolitis in the exclusively breastfed infant. Breastfeeding Medicine. 2011;6(6).

  • Riordan J, Wambach K. Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Fourth Edition. Jones and Bartlett Learning. 2014.