If you’re like me, you may have found yourself noticing that these days, many children seem to have food allergies and food sensitivities. SO many of my sons’ friends have milk allergies, or gluten allergies, or nut allergies. In fact, I sometimes wonder to myself, “Is it just me, or do far more kids have food allergies today than they did when I was young?”
Turns out that my speculation is, in fact, correct. It doesn’t just seem like way more kids have food allergies and sensitivities today than they did 25 or 30 years ago; they actually do. A 2011 study in the journal Pediatrics revealed that food allergies are on the rise among children.
Today, it’s estimated that 8% of children under 18 suffer from food allergies; that percentage used to be closer to 2%, just a decade or two ago. And while experts believe that about 6 million children under 18 have food allergies today, just 3 million suffered from food allergies and sensitivities in 2007.
Given those statistics, we know that it’s likely a fair number of you, our readers, are struggling with food allergies and sensitivities in your own home. For that reason, we’re dedicating today’s article to the topic of food allergies — specifically, how your baby or toddler’s food allergies may be affecting her sleep.
Food Allergies and Food Sensitivities: Some Background Information
This article is mainly about how your little one’s food allergies and sensitivities impact sleep, so we won’t get into a lengthy discussion about the details of food allergies and sensitivities here. For detailed information about signs of food allergies, types of food allergies, substitutes for common allergens, and tips for managing food allergies and sensitivities check out this series.
How Food Allergies and Sensitivities Affect Your Baby’s or Toddler’s Sleep
Some symptoms of food allergies are so extreme, they’re hard to miss: vomiting, wheezing, widespread rash, etc. Other times, however, (especially when it comes to food sensitivities) the symptoms are far more subtle. And since food sensitivities sometimes cause delayed reactions, your child may not necessarily show any symptoms for hours, or even a day or two, after eating a particular food.
Sleep symptoms definitely fall into that second category. They’re not nearly as obvious as vomiting or wheezing, but sleep problems are a definite side effect of food allergies and sensitivities. Specifically, sleep problems that stem from food allergies will show up in two big ways:
It might be odd to consider drowsiness a problem for babies and toddlers; I know many of you would love it if your little one were nice and drowsy at naptime or bedtime! But the kind of drowsiness that a food allergy or sensitivity produces is more of a “brain fog” kind of drowsiness. You may notice that your baby seems especially sluggish, or that your toddler seems “fuzzy” and unable to focus. And this “brain fog” may not manifest until hours after mealtime.
Nap Time / Bedtime Sleeplessness:
Usually, the lack of sleep related to food allergies or sensitivities can be traced to digestive issues — gas, or indigestion, may make your baby or toddler too uncomfortable to relax and fall asleep. Food allergies and sensitivities can also cause other problems, like ear infections, that can then produce sleeplessness.
While sleeplessness is a common side-effect of food allergies and sensitivities, we often don’t recognize it as such. We tend to chalk sleeplessness in our babies and toddlers up to problems like teething, or sleep associations. And while those are definite causes of nighttime waking and nap time drama, it’s helpful to remember that food allergies may be at the heart of a baby’s or toddler’s sleep problems.
Case in point: a UK study revealed that in a group of 13 month old babies who were waking often at night for no apparent reason, the majority of them slept significantly better when they were taken off cow’s milk and milk products.
Interestingly, one of our very own readers sent us an e-mail recently and confirmed that her experience was similar to that of the parents whose babies participated in the UK study. Jen says this:
Hi Nicole! I have been reading your newsletters and using your site for a few months. It really does help (especially in the middle of the night) to know that others are having the same problems. My son, who is now 7 months started to become a difficult sleeper around 3.5 months- overnight and at naptime. I nurse him to sleep and was having to do so every couple of hours. He would also only nap if I was holding him or walking him in the stroller.
After he had a reaction to eating yogurt, we discovered that he is allergic to milk. While he was not having severe symptoms from the milk products in my breast milk, such as blood in stool and rashes, it seems he was becoming very gassy and likely had stomach pains. Since I have removed dairy from my diet, he has been exponentially better at sleeping. I can put him down awake in the crib and he will nap for 2 hours! Twice a day! The best surprise came last night when he slept for 9 straight hours! It is very difficult to avoid dairy- it is found in surprising places. We even discovered that the infant toothpaste we were using on him twice a day contained milk products!
While I know that this is not likely the case for everyone, I thought I would share with you. Maybe even one other sleep deprived mom could benefit.
What To Do About Your Baby’s or Toddler’s Food Allergies and Sensitivities
Again, this article is mainly about sleep, so we won’t get into all the ins-and-outs of managing food allergies here. For details about how to handle your little one’s food allergies and sensitivities, check out this article.
What we will tackle in this article are a few general pointers about what steps you can take if you suspect that your baby or toddler is suffering from food allergies / sensitivities that are affecting her sleep. Those steps include…
- …switching to a new formula. If your feed your baby formula, and you suspect that she may have a milk allergy or sensitivity, you can switch to a hypoallergenic formula. However, make sure that you discuss any formula changes with your baby’s healthcare provider before taking action. A doctor will be able to provide recommendations that are tailored to your baby’s unique needs.
- …modifying what you eat, if you breastfeed. Remember, the foods that you eat pass into your breast milk. If you suspect that your baby has an allergy to a specific food (like dairy, for instance), remove that food from your diet. Read more information here.
- …trying an elimination diet. This will work for toddlers, and for babies who are eating solids. If you think that a specific food is causing sleep problems, eliminate that food and then watch your baby or toddler closely to see if his sleep improves. It’s also important to note that it may be difficult to test for a food sensitivity which is why an elimination diet can be helpful in finding out what foods your baby or toddler might be sensitive to and which they may outgrow as they get older.
Remember, before taking any of the steps listed above, you should talk to your baby’s healthcare provider.
Of course, a food allergy may not be to blame for your little one’s sleep issues. If that’s the case, we can help with that, too! If you need help getting your baby to sleep through the night, or help teaching your toddler better sleeping habits, we’re here for you. Same goes for naps — we have the resources you need to get your baby or toddler on a good daytime schedule.
21 thoughts on “How Your Baby or Toddler’s Food Allergies and Sensitivities Can Affect Sleep”
I’d just like to point out that the term “food sensitivities” is outdated. There are two types of allergies – the ones that cause immediate reaction (Ige) and the ones that cause delayed reaction (non-ige). So, for example, a baby can have cow’s milk protein allergy, which could be ige or non-ige. Lastly, there is also lactose intolerance (which is a reaction to sugars in milk and it is quite rare in babies and children).
Hi @Jana – Thanks for writing and for sharing this information with us! I have shared this with our editor who will review this post and update it as needed! Again, thanks for sharing this!
Food Allergies is such a critical topic, thanks for sharing such useful information, it helped me a lot with my boy.
@[email protected] – We are so glad to hear the article was helpful! 🙂
@ Angela Nelli — just wanted to jump in and say thanks for reaching out to Yann like this! Very, very kind of you to share your experience, and to offer some advice. 🙂
@Yann – Yann your situation sounds almost identical to ours! Have you had a blood test done to test for specific allergies? We had one done on our daughter and it has made a world of difference. Since I’m still nursing I now know specifics to cut out of my diet. It was so difficult for me to try and figure out what was bothering her because sometimes there is a delay with exzema reaction. Also, I discovered an amazing product called ScratchMeNot. It’s changed our life! The combination of eliminating the proper allergens from my diet and using these anti scratch sleeves has been so wonderful for us. I was at my whits end not being able to go out in public easily, not having our daughter in her crib (she’d scratch until her whole forehead was mutilated and bloody!) I was so emotionally, physically, mentally exhausted! I’m almost thinking that if your daughter is still itching so bad there’s an allergen still affecting her that you sent aware of. My daughter is now 8 months and we had the bood test done at about 6 1/2 months so you should be able to request them. Our pediatrician did not run the tests we went to an allergist. Good luck!! I hope you can find some answers and relief. I have tears in my eyes as I write this because it brings back all the emotion of what I went through! And seriously try the ScratchMeNot if your daughter is hurting herself. A little pricey but worth every single penny! I bought 3 to rotate between wearing and washing.
@ Caroline Ehlers — I’m so sorry to hear that your grandson is struggling like this 🙁 That must be hard for the whole family!
As to what to do about these health problems, we really can’t make any specific recommendations, since we’re not healthcare professionals. It sounds like the health issues are disturbing his sleep, and you’re right in thinking that those health issues will need to be addressed by a healthcare professional first, before you begin working on sleep.
Once those health concerns have been addressed, your grandson’s parents may want to start working on better sleep; if that’s the case, they can check out our free guide on baby sleep (https://www.babysleepsite.com/baby-sleep-through-night-free-ebook/).
Hope this helps, Caroline! Thanks for commenting. 🙂
My grandchild also has this reflux problem. He is 3 months old and very difficult. He has slime in his throat which the doctor says is from the reflux and struggles to drink sometimes. He is extremely difficult and cries a lot. We were told by the doctor to not lie him down flat by rather let him sleep in his push chair. He struggles a lot with wind and has recently started with teething, his gums are swollen and we are not getting any sleep at night, it is too awful. What can we do? Panado does not work for him.
@ Yann — this sounds hard 🙁 But I’m glad to hear that you were able to get a diagnosis; sometimes, having the right information makes a world of difference in helping our little ones stay healthy.
Thanks for sharing these details about your experience, Yann! 🙂
My daughter is 15 months old. She was born with reflux was prescribed reflux medication since 6 weeks old. Then she was covered with eczema. We then found out that she has multiple food protein allergy, including dairy, egg and nuts plus soy intolerant. I was on a very restricted diet for long time. No social life. She still wakes every night from severe itch. She was put on antihistamine, steroid cream and we have tried various methods to help her sleep but I think her real problem is not sleep association but severe discomfort. I have come to term to accept her condition and give her lots of love and cuddle when she wakes while I cover her with lots of moisturiser and emollient.
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