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Is your child lactose intolerant?

April 18, 2014

Lactose intolerance is a common problem that affects millions of people worldwide. It tends to affect certain ethnic groups more than others, and occurs more frequently in black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish people.

What is lactose intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is when your body can’t digest lactose, a sugar found in milk and milk products. In order to properly digest lactose, the enzyme lactase must be present within the small intestine. Those who don’t have enough of the enzyme lactase have trouble digesting lactose, which leads to a variety of symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, cramping or diarrhea.

Know the difference between lactose intolerance and milk allergy

Lactose intolerance is not an allergy. Some children do have an allergy to the protein found in cow’s milk, but this is entirely different than lactose intolerance. Allergies involve an overactive immune system, and a milk allergy can result in damage to the digestive tract over time. Lactose intolerance is a deficiency in lactase and doesn’t involve the immune system. While lactose intolerance can be very uncomfortable, it doesn’t usually cause damage to the digestive tract.

Symptoms to look for in your child

The symptoms of lactose intolerance can occur suddenly, but more often develop over time. If a child experiences abdominal pain, gas, nausea, bloating or diarrhea after consuming milk or dairy products, lactose intolerance could be to blame.

Often, a person’s symptoms depend on the amount of lactose they consume. As an example, a child may drink one glass of milk, and he may not experience any problems. But, if he drinks two glasses of milk he may start having symptoms. Every person’s tolerance level differs, and various dairy products have differing amounts of lactose. It may take some time and trial and error to know how much milk or milk products will cause symptoms.

What to do if you suspect lactose intolerance

If you suspect that your child may be lactose intolerant, your first step may be to take all milk and dairy products out of your child’s diet for two weeks and see if symptoms improve. After two weeks, re-introduce milk and dairy products and watch for the return of symptoms. If symptoms resolved during the two weeks and returned after re-introducing milk products, your child might be lactose intolerant.

Be aware, though, that there are many hidden sources of lactose. Foods such as processed cereals, pancake and biscuit mixes, salad dressings and soups are just a few places lactose may be hiding.

Talk to your pediatrician if you think your child is experiencing the symptoms of lactose intolerance. There are simple, noninvasive tests that your doctor can do to determine whether your child is able to digest lactose.

Should my child avoid milk?

If your child is lactose intolerant, avoiding milk and milk products will ease the symptoms. However, cow’s milk offers a lot of nutritional benefits for developing bodies that can’t be overlooked. Calcium, vitamin D and protein are all important for children as they grow. Rather than avoiding milk products entirely, you may be able to determine how much dairy your child can have without experiencing symptoms.

You may also decide to try lactose-free or lactose-reduced dairy products to ensure that your child gets the nutritional benefits of dairy without the problems. Also, a lactase supplement is available over-the-counter. Giving lactase when your child consumes dairy will help them process the lactose in their foods.

Talk to your doctor about how you can ensure that your child is getting all of the nutritional components of a healthy diet while avoiding the unpleasant symptoms of lactose intolerance.