By Lorna McCann
I have hayfever and I’m allergic to cats but that’s as far as it goes really. So, when we discovered my youngest little boy was allergic to cow’s milk it was a life changing moment for us all.
Finn was three months old at the time and he was breastfed but he was a difficult feeder – cried a lot, was very irritable and didn’t like to suckle for long. He started to lose weight and I knew deep down something wasn’t quite right.
However, it wasn’t until we tried Finn, rightly or wrongly, with his first bit of baby formula that we discovered he had an allergy to cow’s milk.
Finn’s body couldn’t tolerate the proteins in the milk so he reacted and badly. Within half an hour of taking just two ounces of the milk he developed a severe rash all over his body, his lips swelled so did his ears and around his eyes and small hives popped up all over his body. Needless to say he was very distressed and so were we.
We called the doctor who told us to take Finn to the surgery immediately. They were clearly as worried as us at the prospect of his tongue swelling or going into a state of shock.
However, thankfully, neither of those things happened and after half an hour or so the swelling subsided and the rash calmed down and Finn returned to his relatively happy normal self. The doctor was as sure as he could be that Finn had reacted to the cow’s milk in the formula and diagnosed him with a dairy allergy.
And so from that day on all of our lives changed.
It turns out his breastfeeding behaviour was a result of him reacting to the dairy in my diet. I had been right to think something was wrong so I switched to a dairy-free diet and carried on breastfeeding until Finn was old enough to drink a special kind of breast milk substitute. I endured months of drinking tea with soya milk, which if you have ever tried is quite frankly revolting! I gave up biscuits and cakes which made me a little grumpy and started eating dairy free butter and cheese.
Supermarket trips became less fun as we started dissecting the ingredients on every packet and box so I knew what I could and couldn’t eat for Finn and, trust me, you would not believe the number of foods containing milk or other forms of dairy such as whey powder and casein. Ketchup even – well some brands at least!
Anyway fast forward a few months and Finn is now 16 months old. He is fully weaned and whilst he is small for his age, he is healthy, enjoys all his food, has a varied diet and all without cow’s milk.
We have come a long way. Weaning wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated and we now have a pretty good grasp on Finn’s allergy. That is at least until he decides to drink from his older brother’s milk cup! Yes, you see that’s the problem when babies with allergies turn into inquisitive toddlers – they like to do their own milk challenge! For times like these we have a bottle of antihistamine in the cupboard. Oh, and one in my handbag and at nursery and at nanny’s house!
We know roughly now what Finn can and can’t eat although we do still have to check the back of packets. As if life weren’t difficult enough we have found that different brands of the same food can differ in their ingredients. For example kellogg’s Cheerios are milk free but if you buy some supermarket brand equivalents like multigrain hoops they do contain milk. It’s the same with spaghetti shapes, malt loaf and lots of other foods. We never assume or take for granted that something is dairy-free.
Throughout our journey we‘ve also discovered that if we cook almost everything from scratch there really isn’t that much that Finn can’t eat. We have in fact developed quite a repertoire of dairy-free recipes.
We have found it much easier if we all just eat the same things rather than making individual dairy-free portions for Finn and it works well. We and his older brother Lucas can’t really tell the difference.
Educating Lucas has also been key. He is almost three but knows Finn cannot eat and drink the same things as him sometimes. He knows that Finn’s milk comes from plants instead of cows and some things will make him poorly. And, most of the time he is pretty good at putting his milk cup out of Finn’s reach!
I’m hoping Finn will be just as understanding of his own allergy as he gets a bit older. It will make life easier when we can explain to him why he can’t have the same things as other children.
The biggest headaches are eating out, birthday parties and making other people aware and understand Finn’s allergy so they don’t accidentally give him something he can’t eat.
And, emotionally, it can be draining. I worry about Finn. I think a lot about whether he is going to have a normal life and I fear for his safety. Finn will be tested again later this year to see if he is still allergic. The doctors say most children grow out of it by the age of five but this doesn’t make the everyday stress and anxiety any better.
Sometimes I wish people were a bit more informed about food allergies. As parents it would make our lives a little easier if other people understood that dropped wrappers, uneaten and unattended food can potentially be dangerous to our child. And, that we are not overreacting when we race over to our child and tell them to spit something out – we are just trying to keep them safe!
For other mums and dads who may be embarking on a similar journey to ours, here is a list of our favourite dairy-free snacks. We have found that snacks can be the hardest to find dairy-free substitutes. Finn eats a lot of fruit but sometimes it’s nice to give him something a bit more filling and exciting. I hope it’s helpful.
Marmite fingers – bread fingers spread with marmite and water and then baked in the oven.
Garlic croutons – cubes of bread baked in the oven or grilled with garlic and olive oil.
Breadsticks with tomato and pepper salsa.
Egg muffins – egg baked in muffin tins with ham, onion and broccoli (basically mini quiches without pastry).
Blueberry or banana muffins – made with dairy free butter.
Pancakes with raisins – made with dairy free butter and soya milk
Alpro soya yoghurts – Finn prefers the smooth ones
Gingerbread men/biscuits – most of the ones I have come across do not contain dairy.
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