11 June 2010

Things I'm Learning - Milk Allergies

The Imp was a pretty mellow baby. He cried when his diaper needed changing, when he was gassy, when he was overtired. But he was happy to be handed around to willing arms, grinned his toothless grin to any friendly face that came within range, and slept through the night at six months of age.

Then he became a toddler. From about 14 months on, there were temper tantrums. His willful independence started to assert itself. His stubborn temperament began to make itself known.

I can't imagine where he gets any of these traits.


A natural stage of childhood, I assumed. And it was. All part of the transition from dependent infant to independent little person, I thought. And it was. The lead up to the dreaded "Terrible Twos", I reassured myself. And it was. It was all those things - but turned up to eleven. Everyday simple things would cause extreme reactions. Aggression. Anger. Total lack of impulse control. My kid (that gentle, happy, cooing baby) had become that kid. The one that would. not. sleep. ever. The one that Did Not Play Well With Others. The one that bit other kids, that pushed the littler kids over at daycare. The brat that erupted into screaming, shrieking tantrums that would last an hour and a half, six or seven times a day, over nothing. The one that, when told not to do something, looked at us, oozing defiance, and did it anyway. And did it again and again, no matter what reasoning, cajoling, or expert-sanctioned behaviour modification strategies we threw in his direction. The child that bit, hit, kicked, head butted, and actually spit at us when we tried to change his diaper, or put his shoes on, or give him breakfast. We had THAT kid.

One of the really little guys at daycare actually cringed whenever The Imp went near him.

I was horrified. And mortified. And pretty sure that I must be the worst parent who ever lived to have spawned this awful, impossible to control child. I was pretty near the hairy edge of what I could deal with, so stressed that my stomach was literally tied in knots, causing me such pain that I spent big chunks of entire days curled into a ball on the floor. I was so frustrated, I wept daily.

It was awful. But it was our normal, and I didn't know what we were doing wrong.

Then my dad came to stay with us for a few days.

And he gently pointed out that the behaviour we were dealing with was very reminiscent of what he had experienced with my sister when she was about the same age. She'd also had uncontrollable anger and behaviour issues, which through trial and error (and terror that she would have to be medicated or institutionalized) they learned was caused by an allergy to milk. Dad said that within six hours of eliminating milk from her diet, she was an entirely different child.

The clouds parted. The angels sang.

Even though I was aware of my sister's milk allergy, even though HWSNBN and I had discussed, way back when I was pregnant, the possibility of different things being handed down from either of our families, it never occurred to me to associate The Imp's behaviour with his food. And I never wanted to be that mom. You know the one - the one who makes excuses for her "perfect" child's gawdawful behaviour.

Hearing my dad describe the uncanny similarities between The Imp's rage and my sister's childhood, it was like getting permission to explore whether his terrifying behaviour maybe, just maybe, wasn't our fault.

photo credit: luvi on flickr

The next morning, The Imp was a very different little boy. It literally was like day and night. Diaper change? No problem. Getting dressed in the morning? Easy peasy. Drop off time at daycare, which had become a half hour ordeal of screaming every day? "Bye bye Mummy. See you later!" as he ran off to play with the other kids.

And he stayed that way for the several days we managed to keep milk out of his diet. He slept better. The aggression towards the other kids at daycare melted away overnight. Small upsets could be addressed with words, and hugs, and kisses. The difference was gobsmacking.

Then he had some cheese at lunch one day through an oversight on my part.

The onslaught of his towering rage that evening was mind. numbing. Right back to hitting, spitting, biting, head butting fury.

Clear cause and effect.

It's been about a month now. There's been accidental ingestion of milk products a handful of times. Every single time has resulted in the same off the charts uncontrollable behaviour.

The takeaway:

1) Lactose intolerance and milk allergies are not the same thing. Lactose is the sugar in milk, and intolerance usually leads to gastro-intestinal distress of varying degrees. Milk products can often still be used, as long as something like Lactaid is taken with, or lactose is removed from the finished product. A milk allergy, on the other hand, is usually a reaction to proteins in milk, like casein or whey. Reactions run the gamut from skin rash and hives to anaphylactic shock. Behaviour issues are less common, but do exist, at least anecdotally.

2) Milk ingredients are in everyfuckingthing. Read labels some time; look for whey or casein. Almost all processed food, even that labeled "lactose-free" has some kind of milk ingredient in it. Hot dogs. Hot dog buns. Most margarines contain milk ingredients. Crackers, bread & other baked goods: the ones that don't say "milk ingredients" outright on the label usually contain whey powder, and if the label says "enriched flour", it's likely milk ingredients that do the "enriching" even if no milk ingredients are listed on the label. Caramel colour, found in many processed foods, including Coca-Cola, (incidentally, do you know how hard it is to find ingredient lists or nutrition information on Coca Cola's own website?) is often derived from casein. If you don't make it from scratch, odds are good it's got some kind of milk in it.

3) Can't substitute goat's milk, or sheep milk, or any other mammal's milk. (Except human, apparently, as The Imp seemed to have no problem with my own supply.)

4) You don't "grow out" of a milk allergy. Symptoms may change over time, but the immune system's response does not magically disappear. My sister, now in her 30's, still struggles with it.

5) I cannot possibly express the depth of my gratitude for my father's perceptive observations and his gentle approach in sharing them with us. Had he not come to visit at that moment, noticed the similarities 30-odd years apart, and spoken up about them, it's difficult to imagine what our life would be like now. It really was becoming more than I could bear. I didn't realize how much it was affecting me until it went away. Don't get me wrong, The Imp is still a two year old. There are still tantrums of the stomping feet and being obstinate when thwarted variety, but words can be used to address them, they're over quickly, and they happen a few times a week instead of all day long every day.

6) I'm no doctor. I don't even play one on TV. I am far from qualified to offer any kind of medical, psychological, or psychiatric advice. Even my parenting advice, well, take it with a grain of salt, I'm figuring it out on the fly, just like everyone else. But for the love of all things holy, and possibly your own sanity, if you have a child with behaviour issues, at least be open to the idea of exploring food allergies as a contributing factor. I'm not saying every child on Ritalin just needs to stop consuming milk. But if there's a chance that behaviour issues are exacerbated by food allergies, isn't that worth at least investigating? We didn't do our homework a few evenings ago and accidentally gave The Imp milk - his behaviour until we finally managed to get him to sleep? A couple hundred years ago would've merited an exorcism. It was agony watching him go through that - he was literally howling and writhing in his fury - and knowing we had unwittingly caused it by giving him a chock full o'milk ingredients hot dog for dinner at the beach really made me feel like the worst mom ever. Perhaps with some justification this time.

So in answer to the question "Got Milk?" in our house the answer is now a resounding "Hell, no!" and I'm on the hunt for truly dairy free products. I've had some luck with kosher and vegan stuff, and I've been adapting recipes I know and love by substituting rice- or soymilk for regular milk, and vegetable or olive oil for butter, but I'm wondering if anyone can steer me in the direction of some great, absolutely 100% dairy free resources. Websites (preferably not of the hysterical-omg-you-guys-milk-causes-autism variety), books, organizations... Help?


  1. I was always wondering why the scary people come from cow places (Alberta, Texas, Bavaria). Now I know! :)

  2. I have no resources. But I just wanted to say that I am glad that you discovered this sooner than later. I imagine there must be some people who go undiagnosed for far longer, and possibly forever. No fun.

  3. I think I tweeted to you that milk has been linked to depression as well. I know my allergies and depression symptoms, generally, are better when I eliminate or almost-eliminate dairy. I'm starting to make a conscious effort (at least once the ice cream is gone) to eliminate it completely from my diet.

    There is a store in New West called Karmavore - they'll probably have resources. They also have a really good non-soy, cheese substitute that my vegan coworkers swear by.

    You could also consult a naturopath.

    Also, if you ever need a really decadent vegan chocolate cake, go to Whole Foods and order on. Seriously, the best cake I've ever had (and I'm not a cake fan). It's heavy as hell, but not overly sweet.

  4. I'll see what I can do. :)

    I don't know for SURE if Jake is lactose intolerant, but there is something about milk products that don't agree with him. He was able to tolerate lactose free, so we went with that. But I understand what you mean about the huge difference-after a week he was SO MUCH better (no rashes, asthma, etc) that we've never gone back.

    I'll see what I can find, too. Glad you found out what it is, but MAN that's rough!

  5. Hey you - I'd suggest a naturopath as well. A friend of mine's daughter was diagnosed with an insane amount of food allergies around the imp's age (wheat, dairy, corn, soy) and after a strict elimination diet she's now 4 and allergy free. They go to the Sage clinic downtown and found them overwhelmingly helpful - might be worth a try!

    I've also got a couple of cookbooks that contain dairy free recipes - check Chapters, they had several when I was there last!


  6. wow wow wow! glad you've found a link and a cause (bless grandparents when they're that helpful).
    my own milk sensitivity manifested as horrible eczema (just another symptom to throw in the melting pot) - i can manage cow's milk products now but in moderation, and i was mindful of keeping my wee guy off dairy for a long time (he seems OK now). yes, milk products are in everything :(

    i had never ever heard of the behavioural symptoms of milk allergy though, especially the depression link, so thank you for posting. it's something i will have to keep in mind for the future i think