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Does my baby have a food intolerance?

How can you tell whether your baby has a food intolerance or a more serious allergy? Read our guide to spotting the crucial differences

Posted: 24 February 2011
by Cheryl Freedman

Unhappy baby
Food intolerances can cause wind, bloating and stomach pain in little ones

Worried that your little one is adversely reacting to something he's eaten? Then you're not alone. The latest figures show that food allergies and intolerances are becoming more and more common in children - though experts still aren't exactly sure why.

According to the NHS and Allergy UK, two per cent of the UK population, and eight per cent of tots under three, are affected by allergies. Meanwhile, a massive 45 per cent of us experience some kind of food intolerance.

Often the terms are bandied around together - but what's the real difference between an allergy and an intolerance? Well, while food allergies often cause extreme reactions that can potentially threaten lives – for example, causing severe asthma attacks – food intolerances are usually milder, and tend to revolve around the digestive system.

Is it an allergy?

The most common food allergies in children include cow's milk, fish and shellfish, hen's eggs, peanuts, kiwi fruits, wheat and soy.

Symptoms – which include asthma and eczema – tend to occur fairly quickly after your baby consumes a trigger food, and often within minutes. It can only take a tiny amount of the food to set off a reaction.

Typical symptoms of a food allergy include:

  • Mouth and throat swelling up, causing difficulty in swallowing, breathing or talking
  • Extreme wheezing or breathing difficulties
  • Abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting
  • A generalised skin rash
  • Hives (which look similar to nettle rash) all over the body
  • Changes in heart rate
  • Feelings of weakness
  • Loss of consciousness

If either you or your partner suffers from asthma, eczema, hay fever or any other allergies, it's possible your baby will be more at risk of developing an allergy. It’s important to try to breastfeed exclusively until six months, and not to introduce solids before this age, as both of these measures reduce the likelihood of allergies.

Or could it be a food intolerance?

While allergies bring on immediate reactions, intolerance symptoms can take a while to develop after your little one eats a trigger food.

These tend to be a lot less severe, and it can be tricky to identify them, especially if the problems build up over the course of a few days or weeks. In babies, it's particularly hard to identify an intolerance, as obviously they can’t tell you how they're feeling!

Intolerance symptoms may include:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Pain in the stomach
  • Wind and bloating
  • Weight loss or failure to gain weight

The most common intolerances are to lactose – the sugar in milk – and gluten. Lactose is found in milk (including formula and breastmilk), and, to a lesser degree, in yoghurts and soft cheeses. The main signs of lactose intolerance are diarrhoea and stomach pain. Gluten intolerance, or coeliac disease, is triggered by products containing wheat, rye and barley. Signs include diarrhoea, wind, weight loss, mouth ulcers and muscle aches and pains. About one in 100 people in the UK have coeliac disease, but many more live with the condition undiagnosed.

Getting help with diagnosis

If you think your baby has an allergy or food intolerance, see your GP. It may be helpful to keep a two-week diary of all foods eaten by your tot and his symptoms.

Allergies can be diagnosed by medical tests and on the basis of family history. Intolerances are difficult to diagnose as tests tend to be unreliable. If it isn’t clear which is the problem food, an elimination diet may be recommended, where you cut out all suspect foods and then reintroduce them gradually, one by one, to monitor your baby’s symptoms.

However, if your baby's symptoms are severe or your child loses consciousness, always call an ambulance immediately or go to your nearest A&E.

And while it may be tempting, don’t try to self-diagnose your child’s allergy or intolerance. Getting rid of specific foods without medical guidance may lead to nutritional deficiencies, especially if you cut out a key food group such as dairy or wheat. Your doctor will also want to rule out other causes of your child’s symptoms, such as inflammatory bowel disease or gastrointestinal obstructions.

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