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How Do I Know if My Baby Has Allergies or Food Intolerance/Sensitivity*?

By Dr. Lisa Thornton, M.D.

Food allergies vary from mild to severe and some can even be deadly. Food intolerance (food sensitivity) can be annoying and uncomfortable, but it is not serious or life threatening. Food intolerance can be confused with food allergy, so it's important for parents to know the difference.

Food Allergy

A food allergy happens when the body's immune system reacts against proteins found in foods. The reaction usually happens shortly after a meal. Symptoms of a food allergy include hives (red spots that look like mosquito bites), itchy skin, swelling of the face, tongue or lips, breathing problems like wheezing, sneezing, and throat tightness, vomiting and diarrhea, pale skin, light-headedness, and loss of consciousness. A severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis and requires immediate medical attention.

Food Intolerance

Food intolerance means that a baby has trouble digesting a certain food without the involvement of the immune system. If your baby has food intolerance, you may notice that every time he or she eats or drinks a food, your baby develops gas, bloating, or diarrhea. One of the most common foods that babies have difficulty digesting is lactose, the sugar in cow's milk and the most common sugar found in infant formulas. If your baby has trouble digesting lactose, your pediatrician may suggest switching to a soy-based formula or a pre-digested (broken down or "hydrolyzed" proteins) formula.

CMA and Hypoallergenic Infant Formula

Cow's milk allergy (CMA) is the most common food allergy in babies. Symptoms include: colic; skin reactions; respiratory issues such as coughing, wheezing, and runny nose; and gastrointestinal (GI) distress such as regurgitation, diarrhea, constipation, and iron deficiency.

Hypoallergenic formula breaks down (hydrolyzes) cow's milk proteins so a baby's immune system does not react negatively to the cow's milk protein. There are nationally advertised brands of hypoallergenic formula: Nutramigen® & Similac® Alimentum®**. There are also store brand hypoallergenic infant formulas sold at leading retailers that compare to the nutrition of these big-name brands. Store brand hypoallergenic formulas provide complete nutrition, help relieve colic, and are clinically proven to manage cow's milk allergy. They also and cost less, allowing families to save up to 25% or up to $75 in savings per month compared to leading name brands***.

Discuss Infant Feeding with a Healthcare Professional

There is no way to prevent your baby from developing a food allergy or food intolerance, but it's best to introduce new foods one at a time, with several days between each new food addition. That way, if your baby has a reaction, you can quickly narrow down the possible culprits.

Allergies can run in families, so parents who have a strong allergic history must watch for similar issues in their baby. Specific needs can vary widely between children, so be sure to consult your pediatrician for guidance about your child's individual needs. When choosing formula, be sure to discuss feeding options with a healthcare professional.

*Excerpted from: It's Called Formula for a Reason: Tips and Tricks from Experts and Parents Who've Been There by The Editors of

**Nutramigen® is a registered trademark of Mead Johnson & Co. Similac® and Alimentum® are registered trademarks of Abbott Laboratories. Store Brand Hypoallergenic Infant Formula is NOT made by or affiliated with Abbott Laboratories or Mead Johnson & Co. Store Brand Hypoallergenic Infant Formula does not contain the identical proprietary ingredient blend of prebiotics, patented levels of nucleotides, lutein and lycopene in Similac® Alimentum®. Values are based on label claims as of January 2020 and are subject to change.

***Calculations based cost per pound with average weekly usage of 1.5 pounds of powder the first year using Perrigo's MSRP for a 12.6oz container of Store Brand Hypoallergenic Infant Formula compared to pricing for Nutramigen® 12.6oz container based on June 2021 IRi Market Advantage annual retail sales data.

About the Author

Lisa Thornton

Pediatrician Dr. Lisa Thornton is an assistant professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Surgery at the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine. She is a guest host on the ABC News Now web cast “Healthy Life” on and the former host and medical consultant for the weekly health magazine show, “Health Corner,” which aired on Lifetime TV for 5 seasons.

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