Allergies & intolerances

You’ve just given birth and the next vital thing is to give your newborn baby food. But wait – that very food makes them ill.

From newborn, Esme, my eldest, was a delicate flower. Proof of this was the green diarrhoea she passed for the first six months of her life. Cows’ milk allergy and lactose intolerance were to blame.

Her symptoms included severe colic and reflux, but silent reflux with no vomiting. Where the pain simply sits and burns within.

For the first four months of her life, Esme cried. She was inconsolable. She wouldn’t take a dummy. She was uncomfortable being held. She never napped. She simply screamed.

I was dairy-free so that I could feed Esme myself, but she would arch her back in agony. Before long she stopped gaining weight.

Esme was put on a reflux medicine and a hypoallergenic formula that we called her potato milk because of its odd starchy smell. In fact, it was cows’ milk, but she was able to digest it, because it is heavily hydrolysed. This process means the protein in the milk is broken down to the point where it is unrecognisable to the immune system, thus preventing an allergic response.

Under the health visitor’s guidance, I waited until Esme was six months old before weaning her. It didn’t take long to realise certain foods were a no-no.

Esme couldn’t stomach dairy for 18 months. And in the meantime, she would also suffer with hives, vomiting and wheezing. She was hospitalised several times within her first year.

Three years down the line, Esme’s start was to be repeated on the allergic/intolerant front by her sister Sofia, who was born and two days later presented with symptoms of silent reflux.

Pretty much until Sofia turned two, she was clingy, blotchy and bad-tempered, passing up to eight diarrhoea nappies a day.

Sofia only settled after she was given omeprazole; a far stronger drug for reflux; which not only prevented symptoms, but allowed her ulcerated digestive system to heal.

The attractive and fabulous paediatrician I saw with both girls highlighted the not so attractive and fabulous fact, that to have one allergic baby was rotten luck. But to have two; was just rotten.

Fortunately, my daughters have since outgrown these issues; (87% of children do by the time they are three), but year on year, the number of food allergy sufferers increases by 5%. Half of those affected are children, with cows’ milk allergy (CMA) being the most common problem. It is also estimated that up to 20% of children suffer from food intolerance.

Dr. Thapar, a Paediatric Gastroenterologist from Gt. Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH), tells me they see up to 1,500 patients a year with food allergies.

He says, “I feel the rise in food reactions is contributed to by several factors. Firstly, there seems to be a growing number of people whose immune systems have become more sensitive.

People also talk about the hygiene hypothesis – that we live in too clean an environment and our bodies are not getting challenged enough. This may have some truth but has probably led to a very gradual change in the immune system and how it deals with foods over generations. Secondly, people have become more aware of the signs and symptoms of food allergies, such as reflux or constipation, and so this is also adding to the overall rise in numbers.”

50% of babies usually grow out of CMA by the time they turn one. For others though, food allergies and intolerances continue long into childhood.

Other common food allergens are egg, fish, soya, nuts and wheat. It’s important to highlight here that wheat intolerance differs from Coeliac Disease. Coeliacs is a lifelong intolerance to gliaden, part of the gluten proteins that are a large part of the grain of wheat, rye and barley. It causes damage to the small intestine, has many other symptoms, and tends to run in families. Strict adherence to a gluten-free diet brings complete resolution of symptoms.

Dr. Dawn Harper (of Embarrassing Bodies fame), recently put her name to a new website,, an online resource supporting parents and carers of babies and children with special nutritional needs.

There are recipes offering food alternatives, advice on weaning, and support for dealing with the frustrations and anxieties of allergy and intolerance, for the emotional impact can be stressful.

Melanie Sansum from Surrey, mum to Oliver (6) and Ben (2) knows that only too well. She remembers when her youngest was blue-lighted to hospital.

“Ben was 14 months old. He had CMA and soya intolerance. But his elder brother didn’t have any food issues, so we never imagined that giving Ben houmous would be a problem. Yet immediately after eating it, he began to swell up, have breathing difficulties and vomit. It was traumatic.”

“Shortly after that we discovered Ben was allergic to egg. He threw up a biscuit. Weeks later he touched a product with baked egg in it and came up in hives. His egg allergy was confirmed through a blood test along with lentil, sesame, and milk.”

To find out if Ben has outgrown his egg allergy, he will have to go for future egg trials on a children’s ward. In the meantime, should Melanie want to introduce any new foods to Ben, she can give one teaspoon only, waiting to see if he reacts.

When it comes to the supermarket, Melanie admits food shopping is a nightmare, “Finding products avoiding allergens is a challenge. I’m lucky I can cook.”

Melanie is hopeful that Ben’s egg and milk allergies will disappear by the time he is five years old. And why shouldn’t she remain positive; after all there’s a 92% chance they will.

For me personally, a mum of two that both suffered with CMA and lactose intolerance from birth, I hope this feature helps new parents to be aware that continual crying in young babies may well be reflux (or silent reflux), often the result of allergy/intolerance.

I also like to think that then, when basic treatment for reflux doesn’t relieve the pain, both parents and baby alike will swiftly receive the help they need; in the form of hypoallergenic formula, medication and support.

Allergy vs intolerance
Allergy is different to intolerance. Allergy is an adverse reaction produced by the body’s immune system when it encounters a normally harmless substance. Intolerance is where a substance causes unpleasant symptoms for a variety of reasons, but does not involve the immune system.

Most common food allergens
1. Cows’ milk
2. Chicken eggs
3. Fish
4. Soya
5. Peanuts
6. Shellfish – especially prawns
7. Wheat
8. Tree nuts eg hazelnuts, almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashew and pistachio nuts

• Itchy mouth/throat
• Flushed face
• Runny or blocked nose
• Sneezing/watery eyes
• Hives
• Swelling of lips/face
• Nausea/vomiting/tummy cramps/diarrhoea

• Swelling of the tongue and throat, restricting the airways
• Wheezing or chest tightness
• Dizziness, confusion, collapse, loss of consciousness
• Sudden drop in blood pressure

Ways to manage food allergies
• Elimination of problematic food
• Antihistamines
• In rare cases, with risk of anaphylaxis, adrenalin injections
• Varied diet to ensure nutrients lost due to food avoidance are replaced by other foods the body does not react to

Most common food intolerance
1. Dairy (lactose) intolerance
2. Wheat and gluten intolerance
3. Yeast intolerance
• Constipation
• Diarrhoea
• Acid reflux
• Eczema
• Fatigue
• Headache
• Wheezing
• Nausea
• Rashes
• Rhinitis/Sinusitis

Helpful links:
• British Dietetic Association:

• If you think that your infant/child may have a food allergy or an intolerance to food then go and talk to your Health Visitor or GP.