Common symptoms of lactose intolerance include diarrhoea, stomach cramps, pain, bloating and flatulence. But, is it possible for a baby to be lactose intolerant?
Just like adults, babies and toddlers who are lactose intolerant lack the lactase enzyme. When this occurs, “the lactose travels through the stomach into the gut undigested and causes fluid to move from the gut tissue into the gut itself, which causes cramping, nausea, abdominal pain and diarrhoea,” Dr Mark Moss, a paediatric allergist at the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, told The Bump.
Symptoms of lactose intolerance
The Cleveland Clinic explains that lactose is a disaccharide, which means it's a sugar that is made up of two molecules called glucose and galactose. In order for this sugar to be absorbed by the body, it needs to be broken down by an enzyme found in the lining of the small intestine called lactose.
Lactose intolerance occurs when the body is unable to digest and absorb the sugar found in dairy products. Because the sugar can’t be digested, the gut bacterial flora in the large intestine ferments it, which releases carbon dioxide and hydrogen, as well as other byproducts that have a laxative effect.
These symptoms can occur within an hour of consuming dairy products:
- Loose stools and gas
- Watery diarrhoea
- Bloating, flatulence and nausea
- Stomach aches and cramping
A child with lactose intolerance may be fussy immediately after a feeding.
A rare condition
Fortunately lactose intolerance in children under the age of two is rare. Registered nurse Jennifer Fink writes, “Because milk is the natural first food of all humans, babies are typically born ready, willing and able to drink (and digest) milk.”
She adds, however, that the exception is when a baby is born prematurely because lactase levels usually increase during the third trimester. “If baby was born early, he or she may not have enough lactase to adequately break down lactose. Interestingly, lactose intolerance becomes more common in kids after age two, since lactase levels begin to taper off after that age.”
Sophie Medlin, a lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, explains why this happens. "When we are babies, we all produce plenty of the lactase enzyme that allows us to absorb our mother’s milk. In populations where milk consumption has been historically low, such as Japan and China, most children will have stopped producing lactase soon after weaning and – producing almost entire populations that may be unable to absorb the lactose in milk – this we call 'lactose intolerance'."
Breast milk can also cause a reaction if a baby is born with lactose intolerance. According to the Australian Breastfeeding Association, lactose is found in all mammalian milks. They say, “The amount of lactose in breastmilk is independent of the mother's consumption of lactose and hardly varies. The milk the baby gets when he first starts to feed contains much the same amount of lactose as does the milk at the end of a breastfeed.”
Baby Center says in this instance a baby would need a special lactose-free formula.
Managing lactose intolerance
Much like adults, if your baby is lactose intolerant he or she must avoid consuming dairy. You can use soya milk or a soya-based formula instead of breast milk or dairy. According to Fink, “As baby gets older, he or she may be able to tolerate small amounts of dairy. If not, you can always put lactase drops – basically, artificial lactase – in baby's meals to help him or her digest dairy."
Your doctor will be able to advise you on the best formulas for your baby.
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