Lactose Intolerance in Babies

Lactose intolerance refers to the reduced ability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products. It is not the same as a milk allergy, but babies and children with lactose intolerance are still affected by a variety of symptoms after drinking milk or eating other foods containing lactose. Keep reading for everything you need to know about identifying and managing lactose intolerance in babies.

Causes of Lactose Intolerance in Babies

An individual who has lactose intolerance does not make enough lactase in their small intestine. Without enough lactase, the body cannot properly digest milk and other dairy products that contain lactose.

People can develop lactose intolerance at any age, although it typically occurs after age 5. There is a genetic component to lactose intolerance, and people of Asian, African, Native American, and Hispanic descent are more likely to develop lactose intolerance.

Congenital lactase deficiency (alactasia) is extremely rare but occurs when babies are born with no lactase enzymes at all. They will exhibit severe symptoms and failure to thrive from the first day of life and will require a specialized diet in order to survive.

Problems with the digestive tract, such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease, can lead to what is known as secondary lactose intolerance due to lower production of the lactase enzyme. Medications and certain infections (such as gastroenteritis) can also trigger a temporary period of secondary lactose intolerance in your baby.

causes & treatment of lactose intolerance in childrenSymptoms of Lactose Intolerance in Babies

Symptoms of lactose intolerance typically occur within a few hours of consuming milk or other dairy products containing lactose. Symptoms of lactose intolerance can include:

  • Gas
  • Cramps
  • Bloating
  • Upset stomach
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • Slow weight gain
  • Diaper rash

Keep in mind: Breastfed babies can also be affected by lactose intolerance since lactose is also present in breast milk. Symptoms of lactose intolerance in babies can be similar to those of a milk allergy, so diagnosis by a pediatrician may be necessary.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Lactose Intolerance in Babies

Typically a medical examination coupled with a thorough review of your child’s medical history and symptoms is enough to confirm a diagnosis of lactose intolerance.

Your pediatrician may also conduct a hydrogen breath test, which involves measuring the breath for hydrogen levels before and after consuming lactose. If your child has lactose intolerance, their hydrogen levels should go up over time.

An endoscopy, a procedure involving the use of a camera and a long, skinny tube inside the intestines, can also confirm a diagnosis of lactose intolerance by taking tissue samples to measure lactase enzyme levels.

Your doctor may ask you to switch to a lactose-free formula in order to see if symptoms improve and confirm a diagnosis. If symptoms improve on a dairy-free diet, there’s a good chance your baby is lactose intolerant.

Treatment at this age consists primarily of avoiding milk and other dairy products containing lactose. Thankfully, there are plenty of alternative formulas for babies today to consume. If your baby is breastfed, talk to your child’s doctor for treatment options, including taking a short break from breastfeeding while treating the underlying cause.

You shouldn’t have to stop breastfeeding your lactose intolerant baby if you don’t want to. An appointment with a lactation consultant can also help determine ways to improve and maintain the breastfeeding relationship with a lactose intolerant baby.

For older kids, taking a lactase enzyme supplement (such as Lactaid) right before consuming dairy can help. Children can begin taking Lactaid chewable tablets at age 4.

If you suspect your baby might be lactose intolerant, please give us a call today to schedule a consultation with one of our friendly board-certified pediatricians.