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

By Dr. Lisa Thornton, M.D.

Common Allergens

Tree Nuts

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 formulas sold at leading retailers that are clinically studied for cow's milk allergy and cost less.

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.

Lisa Thornton, MD

Pediatrician and Infant Nutrition Expert

Dr. Lisa Thornton is a mom and a pediatrician who specializes in the care of children with disabilities. She is passionate about providing reliable health information for families and believes that childhood is the best time to develop good habits for the body and mind. Dr. Lisa has practiced medicine in a busy clinical setting for more than 15 years, has lectured widely, and provides health commentary for network morning shows and various other media outlets. Her friendly, engaging, straightforward style makes health information accessible whether she's talking to a private patient or a network audience. Aside from raising her own children, Dr. Lisa's next greatest passion is partnering with parents to help them guide their children to the best life possible.

Dr. Lisa is the founder and director of C.A.M.P. Schwab (Children with Adapted Mobility Play), whose mission is to encourage athletic participation among children with disabilities. She has lectured at academic institutions (Fisk University, Northwestern University, Tulane University, University of Chicago), corporations (Boeing, Kraft Foods, National Association for Black Journalists, Safeway, The Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation), and for the Michigan Legislature. She has led audiences to a greater understanding of a variety of topics including childhood obesity, childhood disability, injury prevention, and overall health and wellness.

Dr. Lisa is a graduate of the University of Michigan Medical School and completed her residency at Children's Memorial Hospital Northwestern University.

*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.

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