Lactose intolerance results from the intestine’s inability to digest lactose, the main carbohydrate, or sugar, found naturally in milk and milk products. Lactose is also the main carbohydrate in breast milk.
There are generally two forms of lactose intolerance:
- Primary Lactose Intolerance in babies: This inability to digest lactose is because the intestine does not make enough of the enzyme lactase, which is what is needed to digest and breakdown lactose. An extremely rare genetic condition which requires medical intervention.
- Secondary (Transient) Lactose Intolerance in babies: This is much more common. It occurs when the small intestine cell lining is damaged, most commonly due to a bout of gastroenteritis. The cell lining is where the lactase enzyme lives; damage to these cells can mean an interruption and reduction of lactase activity.
Sometimes lactose intolerance can be mistakenly called an allergy when it is not. Lactose intolerance does not involve your immune system, it involves sensitivities to one part of food – Lactose – and causes reactions in the digestive system, which is still maturing in infants and young children.
What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies?
Symptoms often occur 30 minutes to 2 hours after your baby eats or drinks milk products and may include any of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Acute and irritable diarrhoea that can be frothy
- Excessive wind
- Irritable behaviour
- Restless sleep
- Nappy rash
Often symptoms occur when your baby’s threshold to tolerate lactose has been passed. For example, often small amounts of lactose in yoghurt can be tolerated without any symptoms, however more dairy during that day may tip them over the edge, resulting in a symptom.
With these very general symptoms, it can be difficult for parents to recognise lactose intolerance. It may be useful to keep a food diary and note down problem symptoms, but most importantly, see your healthcare professional for advice.
How is lactose intolerance managed?
Simply put, you avoid lactose. However, it’s not quite as simple as that. The amount of lactose that can be tolerated will vary from person to person. There are lactose free or low lactose milk and milk products available. Dairy products are a great source of calcium, which is important for your baby’s bones and teeth. If you are concerned your baby may be lactose intolerant, consult the expertise of a dietitian or other healthcare professional.
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