When people list protection from allergies as one of the many benefits of breast feeding, you should not mistake my derisive snort as being one which dismisses breast feeding in general. I am a passionate breastfeeding supporter, though I have done so with mixed success. It is just that, in this particular house, my children range from being allergy free to allergy ridden and it is the one who had almost no breast milk who is free of them and the one who was exclusively breastfed who has them worst. Heaven only knows what she would be like had I not at least given her that start in life, is all I can say.
Amelie lists among her intolerances and allergies lactose, dust, cats, rabbits, dogs, pistachios and cashew nuts. We’ve never entirely worked out if she is intolerant of coconut or not and mango is also on the suspect list. She is permanently sniffly and sneezy, with huge adenoids and is often miserably itchy, wheezy and red eyed. She is kept in a bearable state with nose sprays, inhalers, a minimum of milk and antihistamines. Her skin, while much improved now, was dry, cracked and raw for years and even now she has to be really careful to catch sore places quickly as infections set in very fast and certain areas of her body simply can’t recover without steroids and antibiotics. We’ve tried endless different things over the years, even breaching my personal disapproval of homeopathy, but nothing but a rigorous regime of creams and meds really keeps her in a state where things are manageable.
It started very early on and I really wish I had been more aware of food intolerances back then but to be honest, I tended to dismiss parents with kids on special diets as ‘a bit faddy’. Amelie was showing signs of eczema from six weeks, which in retrospect was probably due to the fact that I was indulging my first full breast feeding experience with a chocolate habit. It was not long before she was really dry and sore and we were spending nights rubbing emollients into her skin and her early placid self had disappeared into a wailing and miserable baby. It must have been miserable to be so itchy and we just didn’t really get it. She was such hard work that we put off having our intended fourth baby and my own relationship had broken down totally with her. It is exhausting to parent a child who is so unhappy and Amelie translated it into high maintenance and angry and I responded in kind.
It was unfortunate that breast weaning happened when it did, even though it was at least an equal decision from both of us, because her eczema certainly got worse once she was eating every day foods. Things reached a head when she was 3 and had become asthmatic, partly in response to black mould in a rented house we were in. She developed a reaction to Citirizine antihistamine and would wake up having furious and violent night terrors. In desperation we decided to remove milk from her diet, not expecting anything but having got to the point where the effort of that could hardly exceed the effort of life in general. She was a highly verbally able child and showed a remarkable maturity to the idea of doing without milk; she was as sick of eczema as we were.
The result was amazing. Within days her skin was calming and from two or three weeks into it, any brush with milk, even as a slight milk powder presence in fish finger batter, would produce bright red flashes under her eyes. Six months in and most of her eczema was under control, though any milk in her diet would produce huge flair ups. Neither goat milk nor soya milk suited her and eventually we settled on rice milk, it being before the days when that was considered unsuitable for the under sixes and prior to lacto-free milks being easily available. She thrived though and began to look like a normal child, instead of the patchy, scrawny thing she had been. We were fortunate it was an intolerance not a full on allergy and her problems stemmed from lactose rather than milk protein. It was manageable and it pushed us into changing our diets and habits for the better. We stopped feeding the children processed food and took to eating as a family, things that have remained part of every day family life.
Looking back, I think Amelie knew she couldn’t tolerate milk from early on. My attempt to bottle feed her met with utter failure. She was a year old and was needing to wean as she was a shocking biter – up to and including biting off and spitting out one half of my nipple! – so I gave her milk in a bottle. She didn’t mind bottles, having had juice from them, but rejected the milk utterly. Now at nearly ten, she can largely manage her diet herself; we no longer need to be strict about it, having helped her reach a balancing point where total exclusion doesn’t actually improve other symptoms but she knows to choose between pizza or ice-cream at a party and to cut back if she has a flare up. Josie benefitted too as she had a milder version of the same intolerance and so we were able to manage her much better from early on.
It was a much greater shock to discover she was allergic to tree nuts. One day she was given a ‘free from milk’ nut bar. It must have contained the first cashew nuts she had ever eaten. Within moments she was breaking out in hives on her face and her tongue had exploded into outsized little dots. Her lips swelled and a minute or two later she was the sickest I have ever seen a child be, projectile vomit that went more than a metre forwards. It was extraordinary. She was issued with an epipen as a precaution while she awaited testing but this was mostly inconclusive as her skin was still in such a generally reactive state from her eczema. Pistachios showed a clear reaction, which are in the same tree nut family as cashews but otherwise she didn’t react to anything, not even the histamine control patch.
Luckily, although tree nut allergies can be extremely serious and can even escalate more than a peanut one, it has been manageable. We’ve only had two bad incidents since, once when a tomato pasta sauce had cashews in it and once when a hotel thought pistachio ice-cream was a good kids pudding and we stupidly assumed it was mint, since they knew she had a nut allergy. Amelie’s body seems to be excellent at warning her and within three mouthfuls on both occasions she knew she felt ‘funny’, stopped eating and was sick shortly afterwards. Mango produces the same ‘I feel funny’ reaction and is also in the cashew family.
AllergyUK, in association with Aptamil, asked me to promote their cows milk protein allergy survey and fact sheets with a story of our own. This is a blog post I have intended to write for a long time, so I’m happy to do so. I know several families who have struggled desperately with milk protein allergies and hope raising awareness will cut short the misery that coping with such allergies and intolerances can put families through. You can win £30 of Mamas and Papas vouchers if you complete the survey as a parent whose child has or has a suspected milk protein allergy.
Disclosure – I have been offered vouchers by Say Communications on behalf of Aptamil.