Dairy-Free Me

About four months ago, we were struggling to figure out the cause of Hannah’s eczema flares. There were days that she almost seemed to try to tear her skin off, sometimes experiencing tummy bloat and painful grassiness (which, for a 4-month-old means fussing or downright screaming A LOT, and forget about sleep). There’s some amnesia on my part but looking back, it was miserable for the little thing and, in turn, for us and her daytime sitter, Grandma.

For awhile I just assumed it was from the winter weather or that it would just eventually get better as it seemed to for her older brother. I read that eczema is hereditary (luckily her sister doesn’t have it – or at least only a teensy amount – but her 6-year-old brother gets bad rashes now and then), and that nothing really causes it beyond that. Heredity.

However, that’s only partly true. After putting several puzzle pieces together between hints from the doctor and my own research, we have determined that while she’s inclined to have it thanks to genetics, it is made far worse by certain factors. Call them allergens, call them triggers, but whatever they are, they CAN be cut out to avoid flare-ups.

So, we did our work. We switched her soap. We switched laundry detergent. We cleaned more frequently (hello, cat dander and dust). We bathed her with super gentle soap every other day (sometimes too much bathing is a trigger, sometimes too little. This seems to be her sweet spot). We tried to keep her skin close to breathable 100% cotton as much as possible. And, finally, we started cutting out two of the most common triggers from my diet (since she is nursing): peanuts and dairy.

Sure enough, within a week, she was looking and acting better. Within a few weeks, she was almost completely clear.

Over time and as we introduced regular foods to her diet in addition to breast milk, we have determined that there are other allergens at play. So far, specifically seafood on my end and apples in her baby food (seriously…the fruit they most frequently mix with others) are also bothersome, and even carbonated beverages for Mommy get her stomach roaring. So, while we’re not out of the woods completely, I thought I’d share the experience and see if anyone out there can relate or use our experiences to help guide your own decisions.

The struggle is very real. So, for the past four (almost five) months, I have been dairy-free. This pizza-, cheese-, yogurt-loving person has gone without.

But, it’s more than just that. It’s butter. So, it’s necessary to ensure that whatever I’ve ordered isn’t cooked in butter or that the burger bun wasn’t slathered first before grilling.

It’s almond milk (which doesn’t seem to bother her) in coffee, which simply doesn’t have the same depth and creaminess. It’s a first world problem and I still do the happy dance when I find ANY dairy alternative at a store, but it’s something that makes me feel human so it’s still better than black. (I just can’t bring myself to do it.)

It’s skipping the cake and ice cream, and very often everything else at a child’s birthday party. (Legit, I just made a pasta salad cheese-free so that I could have that, plus some of the side fruits and veggies I was sure to provide. When everyone else is downing pizza and dips and cheese puffs and chocolate…it’s a different type of celebration.)

It’s no more pizza night Fridays because the factor of not having to cook isn’t in the equation. Might as well make something for everyone.

It’s having to Google before going to a restaurant (chain only; local restaurants are usually ill-equipped) to see if there’s anything I can eat there.

And then there are those “wait, really?” moments. Really, I can’t have that thing you made with cheese just this once. Really, I can’t have one piece of cake because it takes days if not weeks to repair the damage to my little girl’s system. Really, I can’t have that because the breading has dairy, or the margarine because, yup, it has dairy, or that pepperoni because it was made with a milk products, or Lactaid because IT’S STILL DAIRY, or “non-dairy creamer” because IT’S STILL DAIRY (if it says dairy-free, it’s most likely free of dairy…but non-dairy doesn’t mean what you think it does). The list goes on.

And, unfortunately, if “MILK” isn’t listed as an allergen on the package, she’s still sensitive to the stuff that touched a machine that produced a dairy ingredient elsewhere. So, there’s that.

What I Miss. I miss not having to second guess everything I eat. I miss not putting my dear family members (who try SO HARD, even buying expensive dairy-free cupcakes from the store so that I can celebrate a birthday) out every time I come over for a meal.

Normalcy, I guess. I miss that most of all.

The Million Dollar Question. So, why don’t I just quit breastfeeding? It’s as simple as asking that question, right?

Our pediatrician is amazing. He trusts our parenting instincts and allows us the leeway we need to make our own educated decisions.

That said, when I last brought one of our kids in, he asked how the no-milk thing was going…then reworded it to ask how it’s going FOR ME. I loved him for that. He then offered that, if it gets to be too much for me, he can direct me to the couple of formulas that are on the market that she COULD have (a vast majority would still affect her negatively). I said that I’d take him up on that if necessary but that I’d most likely be sticking it out. He nodded, smiled, and said, “I figured you would.” At least he knows me by now. I appreciate that.

There are two things at play here. I feel that, for my family, the benefits of nursing outweigh these dietary challenges. I’ve done it for a total of 36 months for our other two kids and it’s not like I want to handle a learning curve of formula right now. What we do is easier in many ways and, most importantly, healthiest for Hannah. While I stand up for the rights of other moms to give their babies formula, I also stand up for my own right to nurse mine.

The other factor? I’m a Taurus and stubborn as a bull. Don’t test me or tell me that I can’t do something. My brother told me that playing oboe would be too hard; it was, but I pushed through and finished my senior year still playing.

My Saviors. There was a time that all librarians hated Google. I’m here to say that the times have changed and Google is my freaking BFF. It has brought me to find resources like fckdairy.com and godairyfree.org, among the other amazing articles that have taught me about what’s going on with my little girl’s body (to say nothing of the awesome vegan blogs that share a slew of recipes).

I also have some go-to’s that help get me through when I just want something yummy. I have discovered that I’m really into mild curry simmer sauce (tossed with rotisserie chicken or sautéed tofu, some whole wheat pasta, and ALWAYS with sautéed mushrooms, which the family otherwise hates). Organic Oreos get me through those tough “can’t have birthday cake” and “the kids want ice cream” days. Organic sun butter is my go-to on toast or whole wheat English muffins (a girl’s gotta get her protein somehow). The occasional almond milk yogurt doesn’t totally suck. Vitamin D and calcium-fortified orange juice is a must.

I also can’t stand dairy-free cheese, so far. Overly salty, weird texture, and smells and tastes suspiciously like feet. Just not worth the money. I’d rather have veggie pizza with no cheese at all, thanks.

What I’ve Learned – The Good, the Bad, and the Unexpected. When you have to live slightly more hungry, it gives you a bit of perspective beyond the surface obsession over what I’m putting in my mouth (although I’ve learned a lot about, literally, what I can eat).

I ate and snacked too much before. I was mindless. I had no discipline whatsoever. The baby has given me a gift; there is no way I would have changed for anyone other than my kids. I lack the willpower otherwise; simple, sad, true.

So while I haven’t done a huge diet overhaul (well, I have, and I’ve even gotten down below my pre-baby weight, but those organic Oreos still make me feel human from time to time), I’m on my way to a bigger revolution for myself as well as my family. I don’t want to cut out a HUGE section of anyone’s diet altogether (I tend to think that’s unnecessary and doing more harm), but cutting certain things out and maybe hitting reset with a Whole30 or something is way more in my realm of possibility than ever before. It’d just be a small hop to get there rather than a giant, scary leap.

My biggest take-away is that I’ve been so damn spoiled my whole life because, for lack of better word, I’ve been NORMAL. This has taught me what it’s like not to be in the mainstream. What it’s like not to have the world at my fingertips and to have to go without. I’ve been SO lucky up until this point.

In a broader sense, it has shown me how entitled we are as people and, to an extent, as a nation. There is rarely a time that I can get, say, appetizers that don’t contain a dairy breading or cheese option, so I just go without. Yet I now see how quickly people are to tack on an appetizer without a moment’s thought. I think of those in the world who go without, whether it’s for financial, religious, or cultural reasons, and I feel for them. This has opened my eyes to a lot more than I could have expected.

An unintended effect for sure, but an overall awareness of those beyond my scope of experience is downright humbling. It ties into a greater mindfulness and is teaching me to appreciate what’s in front of me. In a strange way, it’s also forcing me to slow down and be more mindful in other areas: of what matters to me, like reducing our waste, eating generally cleaner, going outside and enjoying the sun on our faces, and more.

So, What’s Next? I have a follow-up appointment to see how she’s handling things and to discuss how to introduce certain foods to test the waters. I’m going to tell you right now that, while I’m not sure about peanuts, I’m almost positive that she’s still susceptible to dairy (an occasional rare restaurant that cross-contaminates tells me that she still gets symptoms) and her eczema is currently flaring, so I’m curious if there’s an ingredient we’re missing, like soy or wheat. So, who’s to say where we’ll be 6 months from now?

That said, if people are interested, I’d be happy to share some vegan and dairy-free recipes that work for my family (needless to say, I tend to keep it simple since I have a house with 5 very different tastes and needs). Heading into the fall and craziness of the school year, I’d like to get really intentional about make ahead meals and prepping for successful, healthy habits, as well. Oh, and finding replacements for those beloved comfort foods is a must.

So, let me know in the comments! Have you ever experienced a dietary restriction and how did you handle it (whether literally in your diet or mentally)?

Are you interested in hearing more on this topic, whether through recipes or by sharing more resources? Drop me a line here or find me on Instagram @megactsout.

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