Why I didn't realise my children were allergic to milk

As a first-time mum there are so many things we don't know.
As a first-time mum there are so many things we don't know. Photo: Caroline Purser

I don't know how I could have missed it, but it took almost eight months before I realised that my twin girls are allergic to cow's milk.

But before we get into that, let's talk about poo (I'm sorry if that's too much information for some).

My girls pooed a lot. Six or seven times a day. Each. That's at least 12 poo-filled nappies a day. They also were pretty spilly babies, but what experts would call "happy chuckers". They put on weight and were reasonably happy so I assumed that everything was as it should be.

As a first-time mum there are so many things we don't know. We just learn as we go on.

So many things can be normal. Frequent bowel movements, especially before babies start solids, are normal. A bit of reflux can be normal. Mucus in the stool is also not unusual, especially when they're teething which my babies seem to do all the time.

But when one of them broke out with hives all over her body we knew that something was wrong.

We called our doctors' surgery and as our GP was away we got an appointment with another doctor who just said that hives could be caused by anything. Could be viral, could be an allergy, could be all kind of things. He advised us to just wait and see.

So we took our babies home, still not thinking of the obvious. You see, until a week before the hives incident my babies lived on half breast milk, half formula. I had just weaned and they were now completely on formula and drunk it with no complaints. They had also taken to solids like a fish to water and were thriving. That day I had added some cow's milk to their porridge but I didn't make the connection to the hives immediately.

They were just pooing a lot and their poos were runny. Again, this can be normal for a breastfed baby but once they start food and formula it should change.

WHEN YOU FIND BLOOD IN A STOOL

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A couple of days later I found tiny specs of blood in their poo and knew that this was not how poo was supposed to be. So I asked my mate, the Internet, and looked at countless pictures of baby poo. Who would have guessed that there are whole galleries dedicated to baby excrement?

I called a baby health line nurse who advised that I took my girls to see their doctor. I wanted to be well prepared, so I took photos of each and every one of my girls' bowel movements for a couple of days, packed some nappies brimming with poo into neatly labelled sandwich bags and went to see our GP. She thanked me for bringing the poo but didn't want to see it at all. A quick flick through the poo gallery on my iPad was enough for her to confirm my suspicion. It looks like my girls are intolerant to cow's milk.

I soon learned that there are two different milk intolerances/ allergies. Some can't deal with the lactose (which is very rare in babies) while others can't deal with the proteins in the milk. The latter is one of the most common allergies for babies to have.

One in 50 babies are believed to be unable to process dairy proteins, but the majority will grow out of it by the time they start school. That's the good news. Unfortunately a large percentage of babies who have a cow's milk allergy will go on to develop other food allergies and/or asthma later on.

Our doctor suggested not to do any tests yet but that we should just try soy formula and see if it made a difference. She also gave us a referral to a paediatrician to have them properly tested, but it has taken almost four months for us to get an appointment (which is happening a week from now).

CUTTING OUT DAIRY MADE ALL THE DIFFERENCE

The soy formula did wonders. Within a couple of days my girls had normal poos that rolled off the nappy, which is a handy thing if you use cloth nappies like we do. I wondered why I hadn't realised before that their poos weren't normal.

So far it seems that we've been lucky and our babies haven't developed any other allergies, but we will know more when we've finally seen a specialist. Down the line we will have to make sure that they get enough calcium, and reading labels of all food items has already become second nature. There are so many things that contain dairy.

Many babies who can't tolerate cow's milk are also allergic to soy, and special hypoallergenic formulas have been developed for them. 

We're also very lucky that we found what was upsetting their bellies so quickly. For many parents it is a long journey of trial and error to discover why their baby is screaming in agony or comes out in a rash.

However, I still asked myself why I hadn't picked up on it earlier. Am I not tuned in to my babies? I feel a bit guilty for gorging on cheese and dairy products when it may have caused them distress when I was still breastfeeding.

But there's no point in crying over spilt milk. I hope later in life my babies won't be deprived of cheese on toast, pizza and hokey pokey ice cream. But if they are then I'll find them the best non-dairy versions there are.

Jule Scherer shares her first steps as a mum of twin girls on Facebook.

 - Stuff.co.nz