Navigating a Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy


I’ll never forget our newborn photo session. The photographer was taking pictures of my daughter and let me know she needed a new diaper. I jumped up and grabbed the diaper bag, and the photographer smiled and said, “Relax Mama! I’ve got this.” She went on to change her diaper. She was smiling and talking to my daughter, but then the talking stopped. “Uh…you may want to come take a look,” she said. I walked in and looked at my daughter’s diaper and went just as quiet. My daughter’s diaper had blood in it. This was the beginning of our family navigating a cow’s milk protein allergy.

When my daughter was born, I had been warned about so many things. Family members gave me all kinds of advice about having colicky babies, baby spit up, and babies who just came out of the womb sleeping 3-4 hours at night. I bought all the swaddles, registered for gas drops and gripe water, and got a great noise machine thinking I’d be able to combat anything that came our way. No one could have prepared me for the journey we were about to take on when she entered the world.

Signs from the day she was born

From the day she was born, my husband and I both knew something was off. Emma cried all day long. It didn’t matter if we fed her, changed her, held her, or laid her down. She just constantly cried. I had decided to formula feed prior to having her, and the hospital encouraged me to switch to a sensitive formula. My mother-in-law told me how my husband needed sensitive formula as an infant, and we prayed that this was going to be the fix. Sadly, it took seven weeks to really figure out what was wrong and what our daughter needed.

Emma cried for 20-22 hours a day. I wish that was an exaggeration, but we tracked this to show the doctors that something was off. We had her initial appointments, and on paper everything was great. Emma ate like it was her last meal every bottle. She outgrew newborn clothing within days. The doctors reassured me that her growth was appropriate and that sometimes babies just cry. We were told eventually she’d grow out of the crying, and to ask for help when needed.

The cow’s milk protein allergy diagnosis

Having blood in her diaper was the symptom that we needed to properly diagnose her with a cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA). Being allergic to formula was something I would have never guessed as an issue for Emma. However, cow’s milk protein allergy (CMPA) affects 2% to 6% of children born each year, who will develop this intolerance during their first year of life. The name cow’s milk protein allergy sounds deceiving. I remember crying that my daughter would never be able to enjoy ice cream or pizza parties as she grew up. This is not an actual allergy, but rather an issue of a baby’s stomach being too immature to handle dairy.

Figuring out which formula would work

When trying to figure out the level of severity, our doctors recommended various formulas for us to try. We went from a regular formula to a sensitive formula to a hypoallergenic formula. A hypoallergenic formula has the proteins broken down to aid in digestion, and most babies tolerate this well. For those that don’t, like my daughter, you’ll find yourself on an amino acid-based formula via a prescription from your pediatrician.

We were prepared for our next baby

When we became pregnant with our second, the pediatrician did warn us that where Emma had severe CMPA it was more likely our second would have this as well. We were prepared this time with the knowledge from Emma, and we were able to catch our son’s intolerance within two weeks.

While I’m not a doctor, there are some warning signs that I’ve found are common in babies with CMPA. Our daughter had the classic sign with blood in her stools. If you see this, please call your doctor to rule out any other issues. But this is commonly how children are diagnosed with CMPA. It often accompanies a face rash, that both my children had, and cleared up quickly with a formula change.

My son never had blood in his stools, but instead stopped eating. Pretty quickly after birth, I questioned Mikey’s eating and was told to give him time to adjust. Within three days of life on the outside, my son had lost over half a pound and was refusing to feed. This was a sign for my son that the formula was wrong.

You know your baby best

My biggest piece of advice for anyone who may think their child has a formula intolerance is to go with your instincts. I would suggest working with a pediatric gastroenterologist, as they will help you navigate how and when to introduce dairy as your child grows. My final piece of advice is to give yourself grace. Nothing will prepare you for a child who cries out in pain most of the day. Know that there is nothing you can do to prevent it and it is not your fault. Try to ask for help when you need a break, and trust yourself because you know your baby better than anyone.


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