If you follow any of our Instagram stories, you may have seen me share a few of the difficulties we've encountered juggling Dessa's food allergies and sensitivities. In the past year and a half, we've faced allergies and sensitivities to dairy, sesame, and tomato. And just when we think we've got something figured out, it seems another food-related curveball comes our way. I've gotten many questions from friends, family, and blog followers about our journey through Dessa's food allergies and sensitivities and thought that it might be time to finally share the whole story (so far) here on the blog.
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The Dairy Allergy: It all Started with a Diaper
October 2017 – 3 Months Old
Dessa's dairy allergy showed up when she was about three months old. I was breastfeeding and supplementing her diet with formula. Dessa's nanny let me know that she had seen some mucus in her diaper, which (I'm embarrassed to admit) I was too new as a mom and too naive to do anything about. I just brushed her comment off and didn't take it seriously as a real problem.
(Note to all new moms: if your child has mucus in her diaper, call the pediatrician. Mucus happens when the gut is struggling to digest something. I haven't seen mucus for myself yet, but my best friend said “it looks like someone hocked a loogie in your kid's diaper.” Not the most graceful wording, but that description has always helped me know exactly what I was looking for when I checked Dessa's diapers for mucus.)
A week or so after the mucus showed up, my mom texted me that she saw something red in one of Dessa's diapers and she thought it might be blood. THAT definitely got my attention. My mom saved the diaper and I made an appointment to take Dessa to the pediatrician that day. The doctor took one look the diaper, determined that it was blood, advised us to cut all dairy out of Dessa's diet immediately and to make an appointment with an allergist.
Since I was still breastfeeding, cutting dairy out of Dessa's diet meant cutting dairy out of my diet. Unlike drinking alcohol, I couldn't eat some ice cream and wait a few hours for it to clear out of my bloodstream. Allergens don't work like that. I had to suddenly give dairy up completely to provide the proper diet for Dessa.
At this point, we were also supplementing Dessa's diet significantly with formula and we had to switch to an allergen-friendly formula. Everyone knows that formula is expensive, but if your baby has a dairy or soy allergy, that formula is extra expensive. We made to the switch to Nutramigen from Enfamil and made some adjustments to our budget to accommodate the extra expense. It didn't take long for me to discover that I could save 15% on Dessa's formula if I purchased it through Subscribe and Save on Amazon.
November 2017 – 3 Months Old
We followed the pediatrician's advice and took Dessa to a local allergist. If you've never had to take your child to the allergist, consider yourself lucky. It's standard practice with a suspected food allergy to perform the usual scratch test on the back, but it is just so awful when you have an infant or very young child who has no idea what is going on and can't be reasoned with. Needless to say, Dessa hated having her back scratched and we had to find creative ways to hold our baby and keep her from having a total meltdown without touching the test site on her back and cross-contaminating the results. When the test was finally over and we were able to properly snuggle and comfort our daughter, we were told that the tests were inconclusive – which is very common for infants that young. The allergist couldn't say definitely whether Dessa was allergic to dairy, soy, or anything else. We were instructed to continue a dairy-free diet for her, while continuing to monitor her diapers for any additional mucus, which would require us to cut more foods from her diet. Even more frustrating than the inconclusive test was the fact that we later received a bill for a few hundred dollars. I was so irritated that Dessa had to suffer and through a very expensive test that the allergist knew was probably going to be inconclusive before they even administered it to her.
Goodbye Dairy Allergy, Hello Sesame Allergy
June 2018 – 11 Months Old
Months went by with Dessa's dairy-free diet and our little girl started to devour just about any solid food we fed her. Fruits, veggies, grains … Dessa loved it all and transitioned beautifully from formula to rice cereal and purees to solid finger foods.
One day, I fed Dessa hummus and noticed that her face turned a little pink while she was still in her highchair. It was very subtle, and I looked at her from a variety of angles just to make sure it wasn't a reflection from her bib or clothes. I let Dessa finish eating, took her out of the highchair, and looked carefully at her face. Sure enough, it was distinctly pinker than before. Not an alarming amount, but definitely not her usual color. I gave her a dose of children's Benadryl and her normal coloring returned within a few minutes. I figured she probably had an allergy to something in the hummus. We had a six-month follow-up visit at the allergist soon, so I held off on feeding her any more hummus until after we spoke to the doctor.
When the appointment finally arrived, Dessa faced another scratch test for several common food allergens – including dairy and soy. I told the doctor about Dessa's reaction when eating hummus and they checked her for a sesame allergy as well. I was nervous about subjecting Dessa to another inconclusive scratch test, but the doctor reassured me that the test would be much more helpful this time around since Dessa was bigger and older.
It took some creativity, patience, and a few tears, but we all survived the skin test once again with a mix of good and bad news. The results indicated that Dessa was clear of her dairy allergy but was allergic to sesame.
The doctor instructed us to introduce dairy into Dessa's diet but cautioned to so do very slowly and keep an eye out for any changes in her stool or behavior that would indicate she still had an intolerance for dairy. We followed the doctor's advice, took things very slow, and didn't notice any changes along the way.
Dealing with the sesame allergy was a little different than when we had to avoid dairy. Federal law requires eight of the most common food allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat) to be clearly labeled on food packages. Dairy is present in a ton of foods, but at least the labels were always easy to skim when shopping at the grocery store. Sesame isn't one of the foods requiring a clear label and it requires a more thorough and careful review of the ingredients list to make sure sesame isn't present in a food. (The FDA is looking into adding sesame to the required clear labeling, but no changes have been made to the law yet.) And since sesame had more of an effect on Dessa than just upsetting her stomach, I was especially cautious with this new food allergy. Sesame is a common ingredient in hummus, as well as many Asian and Mediterranean dishes, so we avoided those types of food when we took Dessa to restaurants. It's also common in a lot of bread products, so I was always sure to read those labels extra carefully.
The Week of Hives
June 2018 – 11 Months Old
For the next few days, we happily started to feed Dessa small amounts of dairy, along with her usual well-balanced diet. She even ate spaghetti for the first time and devoured every single bite of it. I had every reason to believe that things were going well, until Dessa broke out in hives and had us scratching our heads.
When Dessa's hives first made an appearance, they looked completely benign – just a few tiny red bumps that appeared one afternoon on Dessa's inner thigh. They weren't alarming to me and just looked like a simple bug bite or perhaps some irritation from playing on fresh cut grass. I made a mental note and kept an eye on the tiny bumps. I expected the irritation to calm down within a few hours and noticed that the spots became more pronounced as the evening wore on. I gave Dessa a dose of Benadryl, which didn't seem to have much of an impact. Dessa was acting fine without any difficulty breathing or any other alarming symptoms, so we put her to bed with the intent of checking the irritation first thing in the morning.
You can imagine my shock when Dessa woke up the following morning with bright red spots on both of her thighs, along with a few hives on her back and cheeks. We fed her breakfast, waited for the pediatrician's office to open and watched as the hives spread down Dessa's arms as she ate. We called the doctor right away and spoke with a nurse who advised us to give Dessa a dose of Benadryl and secured an appointment for later that afternoon. Rob and I kept a careful eye on Dessa and were concerned to see the hives continue to spread to her back and down her legs within the hour. Some of the spots started to swell and look like painful bug bites. We kept a very careful eye on Dessa to make sure her face and tongue weren't swelling and that there wasn't any sign of difficulty breathing, but we became very worried when the hives on Dessa's face intensified. We were about to rush Dessa to the emergency room when a nurse from the pediatrician's office called saying they could squeeze her in the next 30 minutes if we could get there.
That drive to the pediatrician was one of the scariest moments we've ever experienced as parents. Dessa didn't appear to be bothered by the hives through any of this, but Rob and I were very worried that the hives would take a turn for the worst and become anaphylactic. At one point on the car ride, Dessa made a funny breathing sound and we couldn't get to the doctor fast enough. In hindsight, it was just one of many benign sounds that our nearly one-year-old daughter was testing out, and we were thankful that nothing was seriously wrong, but it was troubling to hear when we were already so concerned.
The pediatrician took one look at Dessa, who by this time was covered in hives from head to toe, and said that the hives were the result of a food allergy. She asked what foods Dessa had eaten in the past week and I just remember thinking that it would be easier to list the foods Dessa hadn't eaten. The doctor gave Dessa a bigger dose of Benadryl and an oral steroid, which she assured us would help to clear up the hives fairly quickly. We were given a prescription for additional steroids and told to continue with the Benadryl and steroids as often as the dosing allowed for the next several days. She also gave us a heads up that the hives would come and go each time we gave Dessa a dose of medication so we shouldn't be concerned if they returned.
I tried to think about anything and everything that could have possibly caused those hives. Dairy was a possibility, as well as something in the spaghetti. I wondered if perhaps sesame was an ingredient I had overlooked in the sausage that I used to make the sauce. I bought Dessa one of those big inflated balls they sell at the grocery store to play with the day before and wondered if perhaps that was the cause of the hives. Unsure of the culprit, I cut all dairy back out of Dessa's diet, hid the ball in a closet, and only fed Dessa foods that she had eaten many, many times before without issue.
The hives appeared three days after our visit to the allergist and I was still recovering from the drama that always results from scratch tests at the allergist. As my head was spinning about possible food allergies and dreading the arsenal of additional scratch tests in Dessa's future that we would have to undergo to figure out exactly what she was reacting to, a helpful friend referred us to her family chiropractor. I really didn't understand what chiropractors do or how they could possibly help to uncover food allergies, but a chiropractor had helped to pinpoint all three of her girls' food sensitivities when she was at her wit's end several years ago. The one thing I did know was that the chiropractor's tests didn't involve any needles or scratches and were pain-free. I gladly took the referral and made an appointment for Dessa, figuring that the chiropractor could at least lead us in the right direction and I could always have her findings confirmed by an allergist.
Over the course of the next week, Dessa's hives came and went. When they faded, we always held our breath, hoping they were finally gone for good, but within a few hours, the hives returned looking as alarming as ever. After a week, we went back to the pediatrician. The doctor told us that, if the hives were the result of a food allergy, the Benadryl and steroid combination should have cleared those hives up completely by that point. The persistent recurrence of Dessa's hives indicated that they were due to a virus that needed to simply run its course.
I can't begin to express what an incredible relief it was to know that we didn't have to undergo extensive testing to try and figure out which of the many, many foods our daughter had eaten that caused her breakout and I was thrilled to avoid another miserable encounter at the allergist. I debated cancelling my chiropractic appointment, but decided there was no harm in keeping it just to see what they uncovered.
Uncovering a Dairy Sensitivity
(Quick note: I have learned that people have all sorts of opinions about the chiropractor. Some people love and trust their chiropractor. Others think it's a lot of hogwash. Sometimes people ask about how the chiropractor checks for food sensitivities and it all sounds a little bit nutty. The short answer is that they hold little sealed vials next to her body and observe her response. There's a science behind what they do, but the more I try to explain what happens at Dessa's visits, the crazier it sounds. Believe me, I know – I've heard myself talk and I read what I just typed about the little vials. But at the end of the day, nothing that the chiropractor does physically harms Dessa. She only goes for nutrition testing – not adjustments – and all we've done is cut a few foods out of her diet that the chiropractor thinks are upsetting her stomach.)
July 2018 – 12 Months Old
I attended an informational seminar to learn a little about Nutrition Response Testing and how it all works and then brought Dessa in for her first appointment. The experience was completely non-invasive and Dessa just looked a little confused while the doctor performed her tests. It only took a few minutes for chiropractor to discover that Dessa had a dairy sensitivity and advised that we cut way back on Dessa's dairy intake with the goal of getting Dessa off dairy completely for at least a few months. I was frustrated to be taking what felt like a step backward in Dessa's diet but not entirely surprised. It had seemed a little too good to be true when the allergist gave a green light for Dessa to eat dairy.
We were given some homeopathic supplements to help heal Dessa's gut from the dairy she had been eating and I could see slow but noticeable improvement in her diapers over the next several weeks. Her stools went from being wet most of the time to gradually becoming more formed, which was a great sign that we were heading in the right direction. We continued to check in with the chiropractor every month or so just to make sure Dessa was still doing well and continued the dairy-free course with our toddler. This meant that Dessa consumed LOTS of dairy-free cheese (yes, that's a real thing) and we always brought along a small buffet of diary-free finger foods for Dessa when we ate out at a restaurant. We discovered that Dessa adored tomatoes and she happily gobbled up a healthy diet of chili, spaghetti, dairy-free pizza and other tomato-based foods.
So Long, Sesame Allergy
December 2018 – 17 Months Old
As happy as I was to discover the chiropractor, our visits to the allergist were not over yet. Dessa had a follow up appointment when she was about 17 months old, which included yet another scratch test. This time, she tested negative for sesame! The scratch test was every bit as miserable for all three of us as we remembered, but it was nice to get some good news from it. The most accurate way to determine a food allergy is with a blood test and the allergist wanted us to confirm the findings with a blood work before Dessa ate any sesame.
Dessa had endured a blood draw at the ER around the time of her first birthday for an unrelated incident and it was a terrible experience for all three of us. Rob and I knew that the food allergy blood test was necessary, but we were dreading the blood draw and arrived at the hospital lab with treats and distractions. Dessa was very uneasy when the nurse tied the tourniquet around her arm, and we did everything we keep her attention far from what was about to happen. Rob and I mentally prepared to hold Dessa firmly in place until it was all over and we were amazed when the nurse was able to poke Dessa and get a vial of blood without her even noticing! We did a serious happy dance that day and the best part was that the blood test confirmed Dessa to be free of her food allergies!
January 2019 – 17 Months Old
The only step remaining with our allergist was an oral food challenge before Dessa could officially be cleared of her sesame allergy. I was told to prepare for a three-hour visit at the office and to bring food containing sesame that Dessa could eat. I brought along a brand-new tub of hummus, a spoon, and Dessa's favorite crackers to snack on. The food challenge started with the tiniest little lick of hummus, followed by 10 minutes of entertaining Dessa. Then the doctor came in to check on Dessa, I fed her an ever-so-slightly larger bite and we did it all again. This pattern continued several times as Dessa moved into eating spoonfuls of hummus. After we had been in the doctor's office for nearly three hours and Dessa was sufficiently tired and cranky, the doctor told me we still had one big step to take. She wanted Dessa to eat about 4 tablespoons of hummus and then stay for another hour to watch Dessa for any reactions. Another hour! We somehow survived the final hour of Dessa's oral tolerance test, thanks to Facetime and several laps out of the exam room and around the hallways of the allergist's office.
Dessa didn't have any reactions to the hummus during our visit, but I was instructed to keep a close eye on her for the following 24 hours as a precaution. Those 24 hours came and went without a single reaction and we were finally able to ditch that pesky sesame allergy to the curb.
Not the Tomatoes!
April 2019 – 20 Months Old
We continued our regular visits to the chiropractor to keep an eye on Dessa's food sensitivities. I had mentioned Dessa's persistent runny diapers to our allergist and pediatrician. The allergist wasn't much help since Dessa's blood work cleared her of any allergies, but the pediatrician suggested that tomatoes might be the culprit due to all the acid they contain. I told the chiropractor about our tomato suspicion and she quickly checked Dessa's reaction to tomatoes, which revealed that Dessa also has a tomato sensitivity. Of all our ups and downs with allergies and sensitivities, finding out about tomatoes was the biggest challenge and I proceeded to cry the second I learned the news (I was 14 weeks pregnant at the time and I think it's fair to say that the hormones played a pretty big part in my emotional state that day). Tomatoes were Dessa's favorite food in the whole world and she would happily gobble them up in all forms – raw, cooked, stewed into sauce … she loved all tomatoes deeply and equally. It broke my heart to think about removing Dessa's all-time favorite food from her diet. I let myself be sad about it for a day and then got on board, determined to make the best of a difficult situation.
Living without Dairy or Tomatoes
So here we are trying to happily feed a toddler with diary and tomato sensitivities. The best path to overcome her food sensitivities is to cut them both out of Dessa's diet in the hopes that her gut can have time to heal and will (hopefully) be better equipped to handle those foods in the future. It's been a bit of a struggle, both emotionally and in terms of meal planning and execution (especially at restaurants). But honestly, Rob and I have had a harder time with it than Dessa has. Children are very resilient and our little eater's palate continues to expand each day as she continues to discover new foods, textures and flavors.
At the very least, Dessa no longer has any food allergies, so we don't have to be overly concerned if she accidentally eats some dairy or tomato. It will just knock her digestion off track a bit until we get it straightened back out. In the meantime, we are keeping those foods out of her diet in the hopes that her gut will heal and that Dessa will eventually outgrow her food sensitivities.