If you’ve ever breastfed a baby, you know the hunger is REAL. When I’m breastfeeding, I eat like a teenage boy: constantly, abundantly, and unhealthily. All I want is sugar, snacks, and fried food.
So when I found out my baby had a dairy intolerance at 6 weeks old, it was downright devastating. First of all, at that phase of newborn life, I was basically surviving on chocolate and ice cream alone. Second of all, I had a freezer full of meals from friends and family that I was relying on to feed myself and my family – because who has time to cook with a newborn and a toddler?! – and suddenly I wasn’t able to eat any of them.
Going dairy-free is extremely intimidating. Dairy is in everything. I mean ev-er-y-thing. At the time of your life when you need the convenience and ease of prepackaged meals and snacks more than ever, the idea of having to think at all about what you eat is beyond overwhelming.
But I’ve got good news for you: I’ve now been dairy-free for 3.5 months, and I am neither malnourished, nor depressed (both of which I was seriously concerned about at first). Here’s what I’ve learned, after making many mistakes, getting “dairy-ed” more times than I can remember, and reading the labels of basically every single thing in the grocery store.
What a Dairy Intolerance Looks Like:
The number 1 question I get asked is, “how do I know if my baby has a dairy intolerance?” Unfortunately, the answer isn’t all that simple. Some of the key symptoms are:
- Excessive, projectile spit-up
- Extreme gassiness
- Slimy, mucousy stools
- Blood in stools
The problem is, most of these things can occur independently and be perfectly normal, or a result of something totally different. Newborns are fun like that; everything is a guessing game.
For us, our baby had been spitting up a lot, and it had steadily been increasing. Over the course of her six weeks, she’d gradually gone from the occasional bubble-up, to having multiple, volcano-like spit-ups per day. Every single day, she’d have at least one gas-induced screamfest, which rendered her inconsolable for 30-45 minutes. She was an otherwise extremely happy, easygoing baby, so it was clear that something was wrong when these fits occurred. She also constantly had a rattley, raspy sound in her chest (like she always needed to clear her throat), caused by either reflux or mucous. Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back and made me investigate a dairy allergy was her poop – it changed from the normal, mustard yellow, seedy texture, to a bright orange, slimy, goopy mess.
The best thing you can do, of course, is talk to your pediatrician about it. Mine recommended that we just test out going dairy-free, and see if there was an improvement.
While it takes 2-3 weeks for dairy to completely cycle out of yours and the baby’s system, you’ll see a significant improvement within 48-72 hours of cutting it out if there is an intolerance. We saw a complete shift in our baby’s demeanor and amount of spit-up within about 36 hours, and every time I accidentally eat something with dairy in it, we see a sharp uptick in spit-up and gas about 4 – 6 hours later.
7 Tips for Dairy-Free Survival:
1. Read every label.
No matter how unlikely you think it is that something would have milk in it, always read the label. I’ve been burned many times eating something I thought surely couldn’t possibly have dairy in it… only to be met with an angry, gassy, projectile-pukey baby a few hours later. Thankfully, most products will have a bolded allergen list at the end of their ingredients list, so you don’t have to read and interpret every single ingredient. Just look for “CONTAINS: MILK” at the end of the list.
2. Look up restaurant menus in advance.
Going out to eat is now an extremely stressful experience. You can never been completely confident that a restaurant will offer dairy-free options, or that dairy won’t be hiding somewhere in the cooking process. Whether it’s a batter that contains milk, or vegetables sautéed in butter, you can’t always know what’s happening in the kitchen.
So always look up the menu before you go, and pick two or three items that appear safe to ask the waiter about. I’ve found that if you tell them you have a dairy allergy, and ask nicely, most places are pretty accommodating. Always giving specific questions for the waiter to ask the kitchen, like “is this fish cooked in butter?” or “does that marinade contain buttermilk?” or “does the bun have butter on top?” You’ll quickly learn the things most people completely overlook in the world of dairy.
3. Look for “Vegan” notations.
If something is labeled as vegan, on a menu or in-store, you’re safe, look no further! I still need meat, so a lot of times I’ll choose something vegan, then add chicken or shrimp.
4. Embrace the coconut.
Apparently, the best substitute for milk is coconut milk. Almond milk is fine for a lot of things, but when it comes to thick, creamy recipes, coconut milk tends to work best. I’m not crazy about coconut – I don’t hate it, necessarily, but I don’t really care for it either. However, I’ve had to get on board to indulge my cravings for all things creamy – ice cream, whipped cream, yogurt, etc.
5. Put avocado on everything.
Anytime you would want cheese on something, use avocado instead. If you’d use ranch dressing, try guacamole instead. I won’t pretend it’ll make you forget about cheese, but it’ll at least make it bearable.
6. Get used to Asian cuisine.
Asian food is typically pretty safe to eat. Always double-check ingredients to be sure, but you’ll have lots to choose from, which is rare.
7. Watch out for these surprisingly dairy-filled items:
- Chicken tenders
- Hamburger buns (some are safe, some are not)
- Ramen noodles
- Corn dogs
- Protein bars
It’s taken me over three months to learn these tips (mostly by failure), so if you’re just starting out this journey, give it time! It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, by far. I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes – my first dairy-free weekend, I ate buttered movie theater popcorn, waffles, and chocolate-covered pretzels, without even thinking twice that they might have milk in them. There has been a huge learning curve, so consider yourself ahead of the game, now that you have these tips in your back pocket.
Dairy-free moms, share any other tips you have in the comments!