'I felt completely numb': the boy who can only eat 20 foods

Danielle Brown and her three-year-old son, Henry. Photo: supplied
Danielle Brown and her three-year-old son, Henry. Photo: supplied 

Danielle Brown and her three-year-old son Henry live on a diet of just 20 safe foods, and before attempting to introduce anything new she eats it first to see what reaction he might have after breastfeeding.  

Ms Brown couldn't understand what was wrong with her second child when, soon after his birth, he was vomiting so much nurses had to change the bedsheets after every breastfeed.

The 38-year-old Melbourne mum began to notice a connection between the foods she ate and Henry's unsettled behaviour.

"We went through a four-month period where he would only feed at home in the dark. He would have breast refusal. I was having to express and syringe feed him. I tried a bottle and spent a fortune on them, but he wouldn't take a bottle," she says.

"As the weeks passed, I started to see a certain pattern with the foods I was eating.  He would wake screaming, like someone was trying to hurt him. It was hideous."

Ms Brown began to keep a log of what she was eating as well as Googling foods and breastfeeding, but said it became like a "worm hole".

She decided to cut ten foods out of her diet, which she felt Henry reacted to and caused gassiness, including broccoli, cauliflower, chocolate, asparagus, lentils and chickpeas.

Ms Brown spoke to doctors, lactation consultants, the Australian Breastfeeding Association and child health nurses, but none of them were able to help.  After keeping a food symptom diary, she was convinced certain foods she was eating were affecting Henry.

When Henry was eight-months-old Ms Brown saw a paediatrician and a dietician who put her on the Royal Prince Alfred elimination diet.

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"When I walked out of the paediatrician's office I was really excited, but a few days later when I realised what food we could eat I felt completely numb," she says.

"We were left with a tiny diet to see if it would help. I had 20 foods in my diet, one fruit, 10 vegetables, rice and really fresh butcher's meat."

Ms Brown says from the day she started the diet Henry never had another screaming episode.

Henry has now been diagnosed with multiple food protein intolerance. However, Ms Brown says she still struggles to find information and support about what actually goes through to breastmilk but believes mums should not give up looking for help.

Dietitian, lactation consultant and author of Food Sensitive Babies: Dietary investigation for breastfed babies, Joy Anderson AM, says there is very little research into the area of breastfeeding and baby's reactions, and most of what is known is practice-evidence based and trial and error.

"A lot of mothers think their babies are reacting to foods when it can be something completely different. You have to rule out all these other things before you get to the food investigation.  Then you can look at an elimination diet.

An elimination diet is just the first stage.  It is not the be all or end all and it should only be temporary.  There should be someone making sure the mother and baby are getting all they need in the way of nutrition and then it is important to go through the next phase, which is challenges - bringing foods back in a controlled manner," Ms Anderson says.

"You want to end up with the mother avoiding the absolute minimum foods.  So many mothers cut out one thing after the other until they eating virtually nothing and they just get so frustrated."

She explained that often babies are not reacting to just one food, but a combination of things.

"By cutting out just one thing after another you are stabbing in the dark."

Ms Anderson says it varies a lot as to how long it can take for food consumed by a mother to pass through to breastmilk.

"The traditional belief is it can take a couple of hours, but I have read articles that say anything from 14 minutes up to many hours before it appears in the breastmilk.

"There are some mothers where the substances don't get into the breastmilk.  Some babies may be allergic, but the mothers don't have to avoid them."

Ms Anderson says so many mothers are confused and unfortunately few doctors, paediatricians and even dietitians have studied the issue.

"Some mothers might be advised their baby has reflux, but it may be an allergy and the medication may just hide the symptoms or may not work at all," she says.

She says cow's milk protein is the most common food to cause a problem and recommended eliminating dairy for just two to three weeks to see if the baby's symptoms get better.

"Some foods you will get a quick response to, but there is also a threshold issue where there is a tipping point.  Sometimes it can be a building up of a chemical level such as salicylates."

Ms Anderson stressed that lactation is the most nutritionally demanding time of a woman's life so it was important they didn't cut out food which could leave them deficient.