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A Kid's Guide to Surviving Dairy Allergies

Updated on July 27, 2013

Scary Dairy?

Milk, it does a body good. Unless you have a dairy allergy.

Dairy is one of the top 8 allergens. It's also a bona fide food group when you study nutrition in school, and it's in virtually all of kids favorite party foods. It's chalk full of calcium, the main building block for strong bones. Teachers, substitutes, doctors and parents everywhere will tell you how vital that glass of milk is. Unless, of course, you have an allergy to dairy.

Dairy allergies affect 2.5% of children under the age of 3, and those who are identified with a dairy allergy in their first year of life often outgrow the allergy before they reach school age. But a 2007 study showed that up to 21% of kids with a milk allergy had not outgrown it by the age of 16.

Kids with a dairy allergy need to avoid all things milk related (except eggs. Despite common opinion otherwise, eggs are not laid by cows and therefore do not need to be avoided by the dairy allergic community. Even if they are found in the dairy case.) This includes ice cream, cheese, yoghurt, and good old fashioned chocolate milk. The main culprit when it comes to a dairy allergy is the protein, casein. Casein can be found in 'dairy free' products like soy cheese, so it's important for a dairy allergic individual (or their caretaker) to read ingredients closely.

Although the terms dairy allergy and lactose intolerance are often used interchangeably, they are very different things. A child with lactose intolerance may be able to "cheat" a little on their diet once in awhile with mild or even no consequences. They might be able to take medicine to help them with symptoms. A child with a dairy allergy needs to avoid all sources of dairy. An allergy causes a serious immune reaction which can turn life threatening. The only treatement for allergies is to avoid triggers. Reactions mean more than extra time in the bathroom, they often lead to injections of epinephrine and scary trips to the emergency room. As much fun as an ambulance ride sounds to some kids, the reality is that kids with a dairy allergy would rather avoid the trip.

A lot has been written on food allergies in kids, and keeping them safe. But parents know that the real concern isn't just to keep their kids breathing. They worry about the effect allergies have on kids social lives. After all, in our society, everything is about the food. We go to parties for ice cream, enjoy cake at weddings, make extensive plans for scout snacks, and bring donuts to the classroom for birthday parties. Food is everywhere. Which, for a dairy allergic kid, means there is danger everywhere.

The real challenge in raising a dairy allergic child is to identify these dangers and help them navigate through safely.

Survival Tip:

  • Send a special treat in your child's lunch regularly, and make sure to include enough to share. That way your child gets to participate in the sharing process, if not the eating.
  • If your child needs to sit at a separate table for lunch, ask for a lunch buddy rotation. Any kids who have a dairy free lunch can take turns sitting at the 'safe' lunch spot so your child's company will be coveted, rather than having them isolated.

Dairy Free Lunchtime

Ask middle schoolers what their favorite period of the day is, and half of them will probably tell you lunch. Lunchtime is an inevitable event. And it's forced upon kids every single school day. Lunch time is spent at tables for most of the school career, sitting close to classmates, talking, laughing, and many of them sharing lunches.

Lunches are frequently purchased at school, although some kids bring their own. Kids with a dairy allergy often bring their own.

Unfortunately, the only beverage options most schools offer are milk: white or chocolate. Rice milk is simply not on the menu, nor is juice. Lunches need to satisfy the food pyramid, once known as 4 food groups, and therefore frequently contain a hefty dose of dairy products. There are pizzas, pretzels with cheese sauce, deluxe nachos, and more. Mystery meat is a real concern for those with food allergies. It's not just something to make fun on the playground. It's an actual, physical danger. While a 504 plan will entitle a child to safe food at school, many feel it's simply safer to bring their own or do without.

At the lunch tables, there are concerns with cheese flavored chips and crackers, the potential for spilled milk if the child is contact sensitive to dairy products, and then there's the food sharing issue.

For kids with a dairy allergy, the food sharing issue is the biggest concern. You see, when you're in elementary or middle school, half the fun of lunch is swapping with friends. You can share cookies. You pass on sides you're uninterested in. You split sandwiches. Kids with a dairy allergy can't do that. They need to avoid any homemade treats from kitchens that are unaware of cross contamination risks. They need to read all ingredients. And they feel very self conscious about the whole process.

Things to include in a Safe Treat Box

  • Prepackaged cookies
  • Lollipops or suckers
  • Bags of safe chips (potato, tortilla, etc)
  • Chocolate candies
  • Juice boxes
  • Fruit leathers or gummy fruit snacks

A Party Without Ice Cream

What's a party without ice cream? Or frosting? Or cookies? Or pizza...The list goes on and on. But for dairy free kids, ones who are allergic to casein, any of the above are off limits. That doesn't mean that they don't get to go to parties. It just means that their parents need to do more work.

If your dairy free kid is going to a birthday party, you need to contact the host ahead of time. Make plans for safe alternatives. And make sure your child will be safe. Hopefully the host will understand and let things run smoothly. The best parties offer dairy free treats to everyone, so that the kid with an allergy doesn't have to feel left out. They simply feel like they've chosen just one of several options. (even if it is the only safe one) TIP: Send enough dairy free ice cream for your child to share. And/or a dozen cookies to be offered at cake time.

School parties are more difficult. All kids with food allergies should have a safe-treat box in their classroom. No one needs a cupcake. But if everyone else is having one and you want one, it's good to have a safe treat available. After all, adults have a hard time passing up a donut when they're set up right next to the coffee machine at work. Just think how hard it is for a kid to ignore that cupcake someone set on their desk.

You can always call home...

In this cell phone era society, it's a good idea to keep a cell phone handy whenever your kids are out of your sight. They can reach you in a moment, using their own or a friend's phone. Teach your kids to recite your cell phone number before they even learn their own home phone number. It's more direct, and much more useful if you just happen to separate into two different groups at the amusement park.

Consider purchasing a bracelet or necklace with your child's pertinent information (IE, "Dairy allergy" and your cell phone number engraved on the backside. I've always been partial to the jewelry offered by "Make Me This". Having the information on the backside protects your child's privacy, but allows them to simply pull it out quickly and efficiently if they ever need it. And it's one less phone number to look up if the adult in charge needs you in a hurry.

Family Festivities

All kids enjoy spending time with their extended families. At some point or other, anyway. And many extended family members want to feed their way into kids hearts. Hidden candy, extra cookies, a trip to the ice cream parlor or an offer of a restaurant outing are all filled with excitement, and fraught with dangers for the kid with a dairy allergy.

To make matters worse, some family members refuse to accept that milk could possibly be a danger to any child. They might argue that the parents are overprotective, or read too much, or that the child is just picky. Parents need to address these comments immediately. Kids are impressionable. If a doctor has diagnosed your child with an allergy to milk products, any potential caregiver should have a list of foods to avoid and show proper respect. If they dismiss the allergy, your child is much better off missing the outing.

Some family members just don't get it. They may the most dangerous individuals your child will interact with. They mean well, but they don't realize that a bit of butter on the pan will actually rub off onto the breadsticks. Or that they need to read the ingredients on something as innocent looking as a bagel. Or that they can't just take an apple off of a plate with cheese and apples and hand it to your child. And, since the adult is an authority figure, your child will trust them and feel obligated to cooperate by eating what is offered.

When family comes from out of town, always remind them of your child's food restrictions. If they want to spend some one on one time with your dairy free child, give them the list of foods to avoid and offer to send some safe snacks and meals. If you have a safe restaurant that you already frequent, recommend it highly as both a great place to eat and a safe one.

Teach your children to advocate for themselves. This can not be said enough. Kids don't always outgrow their food allergies. They need to be comfortable self advocating. They need to be comfortable talking to adults, and asking for help. And they need to learn how to read ingredient lists. Encourage your child to order for themselves at restaurants, and help them to talk to teachers or scout leaders about their dairy allergy and diet needs. Involve them the positive parts of your dairy free diet discussion with extended family. That way they will learn to talk and advocate even when you aren't there to back them.

Don't Let the Dairy Allergy Take Control

Whatever you do with a dairy allergy, don't let it take over. It seems daunting at first, but it's really just a part of life. Remind your child that there are a thousand thing that go into their unique personality. A dairy allergy is just one of those little things.

They need to learn to advocate for themselves. To know it's okay to walk away. Remember that all your life, you've had to say no and walk away sometimes. This is a life skill that will serve your child well as they enter middle school and high school. They will always be encouraged to push limits. Teach them to know their own limits, so they aren't tempted to take dangerous chances.

And let them know that everyone makes mistakes. So that if they do take a chance, they aren't afraid to admit it and ask for help. Teenagers with a food allergy tend to feel that their quality of life is seriously impacted. This can lead to risk taking behavior. Teach your kids how to manage a food allergy early, and accept it as a part of life, so that they can continue to manage it well throughout their lives.

Help them to go to parties, experience scouts, share school lunches and read ingredients. When they're left out, let them grieve, and come up with ways to balance the let down with a reward. It's not easy to live with a dairy allergy. But it's possible. And it's possible to enjoy life, at the same time.


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