Is Your Baby Experiencing Lactose Overload?

When your baby develops gastric symptoms like frequent watery bowel movements and excessive gas, it’s normal to be concerned! These symptoms can cause your baby a lot of discomfort, which leads to fussing and screaming. As a result, many people link these symptoms to dairy intolerance or colic, but they can also be signs of lactose overload. Here’s what you need to know.

What is Lactose Overload?

In the first few months of a baby’s life, it’s common for a mother’s breastmilk supply to outpace her baby’s needs. Eventually, the supply will slow to meet what the baby needs, but until then, a mother may “overfeed” her baby. With lactose overload, a large volume feed goes through the baby’s digestive system so fast that all of the lactose in the milk is not digested. This is especially true for a low-fat feed - when breastmilk has more fat in it, it travels more slowly. As a result, lactose reaches the lower bowels and is fermented by the bacteria found there, resulting in gas and acidic stools. Lactose in the lower bowels can also draw water into the bowels, leading to a watery stool. 

During this process, the baby will often seem hungry. This is because the fluid build-up and gas can cause stomach pain. The baby may cry, scream, draw their legs up, act unsettled, and show that they want to suck. As a baby, sucking is the most comforting thing they know how to do. Plus, it can help move gas along the bowel, which can help ease stomach discomfort. 

When a mother sees these signs of hunger - crying, screaming, sucking, and so on - she feeds the baby again. This large feed on top of the previous one pushes the baby’s system along even more quickly, resulting in more undigested lactose, more gas, more fluid accumulation, and more discomfort for the baby. 

Signs of lactose overload include:

  • Adequate to large weight gain
  • Excessive urination, more than 10 times per day
  • Excessive bowel movements that are especially wet, frothy, or explosive 
  • Frequent gas
  • Irritability, crying, and screaming due to bloating and cramps
  • Diaper rash resulting from acidic stools

Dairy Intolerance, Colic, and Lactose Overload

Signs of lactose overload are often mistaken for dairy intolerance. Dairy intolerance occurs when a baby doesn’t produce enough lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose so that the body can digest it. True dairy intolerance is very rare and is usually the result of metabolic disorders. The symptoms of dairy intolerance are also more severe - a baby who is intolerant will experience diarrhea, vomiting, and jaundice.

Lactose overload can also be mistaken for colic. Since the baby seems to be fussy for no reason, especially right after a feed when the baby should be happy and full, it’s easy to mistake the distress for colic. When the lactose overload issue is corrected, parents may also believe that the baby has passed the colic stage - this may or may not be true.

A Natural Solution for Lactose Overload

To correct lactose overload, a mother must slow the rate at which the milk goes through the baby. This can be done by block feeding. In this practice, mothers must section off 4-hour time periods during which they only feed the baby with one breast. When the time block ends, they can switch to the other breast, and so on. This works because each time the baby returns to the same breast, they get lower volume and higher fat milk. It’s also important for a mother to monitor the unused breast and ensure that it does not get overfull, which can cause mastitis. She may need to express milk during this time.

This process should take three to four days. When the baby’s symptoms are relieved, mothers can go back to normal breastfeeding. At this point, the baby should go through a more normal amount of diapers - about eight in 24 hours. If you’re concerned that your baby is experiencing lactose overload, dairy intolerance, or colic, it’s always best to speak to your pediatrician.

 

Resources:

https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/lactose-overload-babies

https://idph.iowa.gov/Portals/1/userfiles/48/Lactose%20overload.pdf

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/colic/symptoms-causes/syc-20371074

https://breastfeeding.support/lactose-intolerance-in-babies/

https://colicsos.com/lactose-intolerance-in-babies/#:~:text=It%20can%20be%20caused%20by,lactase%20enzymes%20have%20been%20restored.