It’s 3 AM and my baby is screaming again. Loud wails echo down the hall and bounce off the walls of my room, seemingly magnifying the sound. My own tears roll down my face and drip on to the already saturated pillowcase. I’m not crying because it’s 3 AM and I’m tired and want to sleep (although I am and I do), but because I can’t help but think it’s all my fault my baby is crying.
He’s crying because he’s in pain or uncomfortable or his reflux is bothering him or he’s hiccuping non-stop — whatever the reason for these middle-of -the-night tears, it’s my fault. See, like his older brother, he too has food allergies. Even though it’s not common, he reacts to the food proteins in my breast milk. If I eat something he’s allergic to — even the smallest trace — he suffers. He gets belly pain and reflux, eczema and diaper rash. He gets fussy and cranky and can’t be comforted despite my bouncing/rocking/swaying/ssshing acrobatics.
Every time the tiniest thing goes wrong — a little spit up, an arched back, a protested nap — I can’t help but think it’s my fault. Instead of relaxing and telling myself babies do these things, I immediately start thinking of every little thing I ate in the past few days. Did I slip up? Did I read the label wrong? Was something I ordered cross-contaminated? Is he allergic to something else I haven’t thought of yet?
Instead of seeing food as something wonderful that nourishes my baby, I start to see it as the enemy, as something that hurts my baby. And then my view of food starts to warp. Instead of remembering that my kids are allergic to dairy (and soy and gluten and who knows what else), I start to see those foods as “bad,” a label I swore I would never give any food group as a dietitian. Even though I’m hungry enough to eat an entire house, I become paralyzed with every bite I go to put in my mouth, not knowing if that’s the food that’s causing my baby pain.
Theoretically, what a nursing mom eats shouldn’t affect the baby, though talk to almost any mom and she’ll have at least one food she swears makes her baby gassy. But to moms of babies with food allergies and intolerances, there’s no doubt: what you eat can have a dramatic effect on your baby. Once you’ve figured out that it’s food that’s causing the problem, it can be completely empowering as a mom. Here you are with this magical power to finally do something to provide your baby with some relief. To stop the endless tears and screams. To give your baby’s belly a break from constant gas and reflux. To make the painful diaper rash and eczema go away. To let your baby get a little sleep, finally.
But when it goes wrong, the guilt is horrendous. Watching what you eat should be fairly easy, especially when it’s for a reason as important as keeping your baby healthy. But even with years of practice, accidents happen. You order coconut milk in your latte but the barista uses the cow’s milk steamer. You ask for veggies without butter or oil, but there was leftover butter on the grill. You eat the same brand of hummus over and over and suddenly they change the recipe on you. I’ve had almost four years of practice and I’m a dietitian by trade, but I still get it wrong some days. The guilt washes over me like Niagara Falls, especially when I know there’s nothing I can do but wait the reaction out.
The hardest part is when you’ve figured out that food is the problem but you’ve yet to figure out what food. Dairy is by far the most common food group that babies react to, and there are eight foods considered the most common allergens, but with a baby with food allergies or sensitivities, the list can be utterly endless (and seemingly random). With both of my babies, I’ve been down to a diet of turkey, rice, potatoes, and squash (and my babies still had reactions). You can’t eat a limited diet forever, but adding foods back in can be the most terrifying thing. Sometimes you go for days telling yourself, “OK, I’ll add something back in tomorrow,” then tomorrow passes and you have to convince yourself it’s going to be OK. Suddenly I’m terrified to eat the most innocent of foods, like lettuce or spinach.
Even though I’ve had plenty of experience navigating the world of food allergies, starting the experience all over again from scratch with baby number two temporarily twisted my view on food. I went from a food-loving adventurous eater to a stranger I don’t know; someone who’s scared of eating. There have been days where I desperately want to add some variety to my diet but freeze at the idea of taking two steps backwards. I see someone eating a cheesy pizza and my first reaction is panic — I forget that it won’t hurt everyone. My husband asks for lasagna for dinner and I immediately think he’s poisoning himself. It takes a minute for me to snap back to reality and realize food isn’t the problem — it’s my baby’s allergies.
Maybe one day I’ll be able to eat a cupcake without baking it from scratch and reading the ingredient list on every package a hundred times over, or order food from a restaurant without asking to see the label on their cooking oil like a paranoid control freak. But right now, it’s about taking it one day at a time; one food at a time, until I know exactly what’s safe for my baby. And as hard as it is, it’s becoming my new normal for a second time, and it gets easier and easier with each day I look at my baby with a smile on his face and his arms relaxed at his sides instead of a wailing, tense baby full of pain and discomfort.