If you are a breastfeeding mother who needs to avoid dairy, you may be feeling a little lost. It can be tough trying to figure out what to eat when you can’t have one of your favorite food groups. That’s why the support of a nutritionist can help you to calm your baby’s symptoms more quickly, while still getting the nutrients you and your bundle of joy need.
In this blog post, I will outline what a dairy-free breastfeeding diet looks like and provide tips on how to make it work for you and your baby. I’ll also share my top dairy-free brands; not only do they taste great, but they are also free of common additives that you and your family don’t need.
Let’s dive in!
Why you might need to go dairy-free
Although cheese may feel like the perfect snack when you’re nursing around the clock, it may not be agreeing with your baby – shoot!
Babies are developing by the minute, but in infancy, their digestive system is immature. This can mean that they have trouble with certain things that you’re eating. Dairy proteins can give your little one trouble while nursing as well as when they start eating solid food.
In fact: milk protein allergies are one of the most common issues in babies. About 1 in 30 babies will have an issue with the dairy that you eat (1).
Symptoms of dairy intolerance
While each child is different, your baby might have one or more of the following symptoms if a milk protein allergy is present (2):
- Eczema or skin rashes
- Stuffy nose
- Fussiness that persists
- Blood or mucous in stool
- Excessive spitting up or vomiting
So, what foods might need to make an exit from your kitchen? Let’s discuss what counts as dairy next.
What counts as dairy?
If your child has a milk protein allergy, you need to eliminate all sources of dairy, as well as anything made from dairy. Dairy is milk and anything made from milk. This includes:
- Sour Cream
Milk and milk derivatives are also added to food products often, Reading the ingredient list can get you confused pretty quickly, though many products, not all, will list a warning under the ingredient list that indicates “Contains milk.” When searching the ingredient list, the ingredients that you may need to avoid now include:
- Milk protein hydrolysate
- Caramel flavoring
- Lactate solids
One final note – a lot of people wonder if eggs count as dairy… they’re sold in the same part of the grocery store, right? Eggs do not count as dairy; if you enjoy the taste, they’re a great source of protein, and other nutrients, such as choline and even vitamin D (3).
Note all dairy-free products are the same
As a nutritionist, I work to help my clients get the most nourishment out of their meals and snacks. And, in the case of dairy-free alternatives, they are not all equal in terms of what they offer you and your little one.
I recommend taking a close look at the ingredient list so that you are not causing more harm than good with your dairy-free substitutes.
Not too sweet
Would you give your child chocolate milk and ice cream on a daily basis?
While we all can enjoy a treat once in awhile , too much added sugar can cause inflammation and imbalances in your digestive tract.
The sneaky thing is that many companies put gobs of sugar in their dairy-free products to make them more palatable.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to 6 teaspoons, or about 25 grams, per day (4).
Look for dairy-free milks and yogurts that keep the added sugars in the single digits. 12 grams of added sugar is the same as a tablespoon and represents half of the daily max for good health.
Carrageenan is an additive that is becoming increasingly common. It is extracted from seaweed and used to make dairy and dairy-free products more creamy. Unfortunately, it is highly processed and often can be inflammatory – I don’t recommend using products that contain it (5).
Skip the soy
Soy milk is one of the most processed milk alternatives. It isn’t my favorite choice.
Beyond the processing, it is also estrogenic and anyone with a history of breast or ovarian cancer will want to consider avoiding it. I have a lot of other dairy-free milks that I like far better. You can find some amazing alternatives to soy in the Cornucopia Institute’s Plant-based Beverage Scorecard list. Hint – Choose unsweetened, soy-free options from Category 5 of this scorecard list.
If your budget permits, I recommend prioritizing organic whenever possible. This reduces your exposure to pesticides and herbicides, which may pass into your breastmilk.
Pay attention to your oat milk or other oat products. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently did some testing and found that many popular oat-based cereals, granolas and drinks contained glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, a common pesticide. (6, 7).
What is a healthy breastfeeding diet?
Healthy can seem like a mysterious goal, especially when you’re more tired than ever as a new mom!
General tips for eating healthy while breastfeeding include:
- Adequate protein from meat, fish, beans, nuts and seeds
- Choosing whole grains over refined grains most often (e.g., brown rice with dinner, whole grains like oatmeal or buckwheat for breakfast, quinoa for side dishes)
- Being well-hydrated
- Eating a rainbow of fruits and veggies
- Healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olives and fish
With a dairy-free diet in mind, I have a few specific foods I recommend that you focus on so that you and your baby have the nutrients that you need to thrive.
Nutrient-dense foods to include
Milk does provide nutrients that can be helpful for you and your growing baby. But if the milk is causing issues, we need to look elsewhere to find these nutrients. Here are a few that I’d pay attention to.
Dairy is the primary source of calcium for most Americans. Nuts and seeds such as almonds and chia seeds can help fill the gap with calcium in a dairy-free diet. (8) There is another drink that you may not have heard of before: nettle tea! When prepared correctly, nettle tea can provide you with a boost of calcium (9). Calcium deficiency has been directly correlated to poor bone health and even loss of teeth. For healthy women, getting calcium from foods vs. supplementation is preferred because excess calcium intake comes with its own negative side effects including calcification of the arteries.
Most of us are actually low in vitamin D and I recommend that breastfeeding mothers take a supplement, especially if you are not giving your baby a supplement. It is important to note here that not all supplements are created equal. Also, every person is different and can respond to supplemental vitamin D differently so please work with a practitioner like myself to determine the best dosing for you and your baby (10). If you already know the right dosing for you and your baby, get 10% off all professional-grade supplements in my online dispensary or on MaryRuth’s.com using coupon code DHEALTHYMAMA15.
As you’re getting dairy out of your diet, you may be wondering if there are any recommended treatments to help soothe your baby’s symptoms. This is part of the work that I do when working with breastfeeding mamas and babies who have food sensitivities so I have some ideas to share:
Gripe Water – an over-the-counter liquid solution that contains fennel tea and usually a few soothing herbs such as chamomile or lemon balm(11). Gripe water are made with natural ingredients and are a great option to try if your baby has gas.
Homemade tea – You can also make your own tea to help your baby with gas – fennel seed, chamomile, and lemon balm are safe options. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 tsp of mixed fennel seeds, chamomile leaves and/or lemon balm leaves. Steep covered for 15 minutes. Let cool. Strain. Dosing depends on the age of your baby. Start with just a 1/2 tps a few times per day for older babies. I recommend that you work with a practitioner for younger babies.
Probiotics – the baby’s microbiome is very delicate and I’d suggest first starting by giving mom a high quality probiotic with strains that have been shown to pass to babies through breastmilk. If a baby has a disrupted microbiome, probiotics can be a wonderful healing support but not all probiotics are created the same and some infant probiotics contain ingredients that I would not give to solely breastfed infants.
How quickly will my baby get relief?
Once all of the dairy is out of your diet, how quickly will you know if it is helping your child?
Unfortunately, the answer is vague: it depends.
It takes time for your baby’s immune system, which has been in high gear, to calm back down. It also depends on the type of allergy your child may have to milk. Much of our immune system is in our gut; this applies to babies too! If your child has been having an inflammatory reaction to dairy, their digestive tract will need to time to heal. We can support this process to allow the inflammation to recede more quickly, this will speed up the process and allow you to see results more quickly.
While responses are individual, my clients typically see relief starting as quickly as a few days or up to a week or two.
Will my child develop other allergies?
If your child has a milk protein allergy, it is possible that they’ll develop allergies to other foods, as well. Plus, kids with allergies are more likely to have other allergic conditions such as asthma or eczema. Gulp!
About 40% of children with food allergies are allergic to more than one food (12). It is common to have allergies to cow’s milk protein as well as soy, another reason I don’t recommend soy milk as a cow’s milk alternative.
Taking time to heal your child’s gut and support their developing microbiome can improve immune tolerance and reduce the likelihood that a child develops other food allergies. I work with mamas and babies on healing gut health in my private practice (learn more about how to work with me). I highly recommend you work with a practitioner that deeply understands the delicate nature of infant gut health – an infant gut is NOT the same as an adult’s gut.
Will my child outgrow this allergy?
While many children do outgrow allergies, you cannot assume that your child will.
In my practice, I work with so many kiddos that have eczema, constipation, or ear infections and are still EATING dairy because their pediatrician said they outgrew the allergy. It is clear that this is not the case. While they may or may not have an IgE response that can be measured in the blood, the symptoms point directly to an inflammatory response to dairy.
Can I reduce the risk that my child will develop a milk protein allergy, to begin with?
Breastfeeding is the best way to prevent milk protein allergies from developing. One big benefit of breastfeeding is the dozens and potentially even hundreds of different prebiotics, supporting a healthy microbiome in mom that transfers to baby via breastmilk.
Some research indicates avoiding supplementation of cow’s milk formula at birth can reduce the risk as well. If you have to take an antibiotic in pregnancy, working with a functional nutrition practitioner can take steps to heal your microbiome after antibiotics because antibiotics can increase the risk of all kinds of allergies in infants, including milk protein (13, 14).
Dairy-free infant formula
While I do recommend breastfeeding if at all possible, that isn’t always possible or preferred by mom.
If you’re looking for dairy-free infant formula or an infant formula that has been modified to enable better tolerance, please read the recommendations in the article that I co-authored “Nutritionally-Ranked Infant Formula Alternatives” (15).
Example dairy-free diet
If you have been eating and drinking dairy regularly, you may be wondering: what is left to eat?
And as if things weren’t tricky enough already as a new mom!
My recommendation is to keep things as simple as possible so that these dietary changes cause the least amount of stress.
Keep in mind all of the things that are dairy-free on their own as you plan your next meal out; meat, chicken, fish, fruits, and veggies can all be dairy-free, as long as no dairy has been added. For example, steak is dairy-free as long as the chef doesn’t put a pat of butter on it. Dunk your bread in olive oil instead of butter, and have your salad with a vinaigrette dressing instead of a creamy ranch dressing.
Whether you’re eating at home or on the go, below are a few ideas of how to eat dairy-free at all meals (and dessert!). You can also get a copy of my Dairy Free 7 Day Meal Plan for Busy Moms by setting up a complimentary discovery call or contacting me.
- Eggs, sausage, and fruit
- Dairy-free pancakes with peanut butter and banana
- Oats with fruit, nuts, and dairy-free milk
- Avocado toast
- Frozen waffles (Van’s brand or Birch Benders has dairy-free options)
- Chicken salad
- Non-creamy soups or stews
- Kale salad
- Dairy-free dinners
- Chicken and rice soup
- Grilled chicken and veggie kabobs
- Sheet pan salmon and veggies
- Beans, rice, and salsa
- Dairy-free chocolate and strawberries
- Fruit sorbet
- All fruit popsicles
- Dried dates with almond butter
- Roasted chickpeas
- Fruit smoothies
- Hummus and crackers
- Clementines and cashews
- Trail mix
- Sweet potato chips
- Healthy Granola bars
Tips for eating out
If you have the chance for a date night out or to order food in, it may take a few more questions to learn the ropes.
Be sure to do your research. Larger restaurant chains may offer complete ingredient lists of their foods and drinks, while smaller restaurants may not. Feel free to call ahead so that you don’t feel pressured to make a decision in the moment.
You may find that an app helps you to find dairy-free options more quickly.
Ask for help
As a new mom, you have your hands full. Having to make changes to what you eat is difficult at the best of times and even harder right now. This is a very acceptable time to ask for help.
This could look like asking for cooking help via a meal train, stocking your freezer with some dairy-free crockpot meals, or baking a double batch of muffins or cookies so that you have snacks and desserts available to keep you fueled for a while.
It may also be time to call in an expert!
As a nutritionist and mother, I know just how important it is to nourish your body well…and also how difficult it can be as a new mother. And dairy-free on top of that? This is a tough season.
But it is also so important to get to the root cause of your baby’s symptoms. Your child’s pediatrician may not have the training or expertise in these specific nutrition and gut health issues. That is why my training as a nutritionist and integrative health practitioner is a welcome team member.
I support mothers in a 1:1 setting as well as in groups. Click here to see the options available and pick the one that serves you best. You’ll have a baby who is feeling better and you’ll feel so much less overwhelmed about what to eat.