OUR family (mammy, daddy and one child at the time) went through a year of being up every night with our child screaming in pain, his tummy hard and unable to pass wind.
When I say ‘our family went through', I mean that it impacted every aspect of our lives. Two weary, sleep-deprived parents trying to get through the working week and still trying to be enthusiastic and give everything to our child the rest of the time.
That's before you consider what my child was going through, having interrupted sleep due to pain almost every single night. My boy had to be woken from his slumber every single morning to go to the child-minder. My friends were jealous of my child sleeping in at the weekends, but he was losing more than an hour's sleep every night with pain and was being unnaturally woken every weekday morning, so he was just playing catch-up.
We knew there was something wrong but didn't know what; it took a few GP visits, an osteopath visit, a lot of worry and trusting my own instincts to finally work out what might be wrong. This is the reality of an undiagnosed food intolerance.
When he was 21 months old, I decided to try an exclusion diet to see if there would be any improvement. I discussed it with my GP who thought it was a good idea, especially given a family history of asthma and allergies.
I started with dairy and my plan was to try for a few weeks and if there was no improvement to try excluding gluten.
I started keeping a very strict food diary. Initially, we excluded cows’ milk, cheese, yoghurts and butter. I initially tried him on goats’ milk and yoghurts but he was still having the same issues.
I then tried him on soya products and within a week he was having nights without waking at all. What a breakthrough!
I soon found that he needed to be taken off any foodstuffs that contained even a small amount of dairy as an ingredient.
I started reading all the food labels when shopping and soon had a whole list of things he couldn't have, but as time went on I found excellent alternatives for most of these things and I knew exactly what could and couldn't go into the trolley. It soon became easy to just buy the same brands each week once I knew they were dairy-free.
At dinner time, I no longer made lasagne or macaroni cheese, but in our busy lives who has time to make two dinners or two versions of the same dinner? It was a no-brainer to have everyone eat the same dairy-free dinners.
Explaining to friends and family was a big challenge. Many people understood straight away; others, particularly of the older generation, took a bit longer to realise I was serious about this and that the child would be sick if he ate particular things.
Social occasions can be difficult with a food allergy or intolerance. It can be difficult to ask for separate foods for your child, or even asking ‘what's in that?' can come across as making a fuss. The easiest thing to do is to make your own dairy-free dish or dessert or bring something off the shelf that you know is ok to eat.
It is best to bring enough to share so that your child is included and can also see everyone else having the same thing. It has the added benefit of showing people that the free-from option is not so alien to what they are used to. For babies and toddlers, it's no big deal to take out something separate for them, but as they get older they are very aware of being given different food and want the same as everyone else.
Eating out can pose a huge challenge. Most restaurants will have dinner choices but very few do dairy-free desserts. This is a big issue with my boys, who both love dessert. We don't eat out too often but it would be lovely to be able to go somewhere that they could have whatever they wanted and that there was even just one dessert option.
Some places have been wonderful and did up a fruit salad or fresh strawberries, but too often we've been met with a blank stare when asking waiting staff if there are any dairy-free options on the dessert menu.
I am also disappointed at the lack of healthy dairy-free options for kids. Some places offer half-sized adult portions of the mains for children. I do welcome this but almost always we can't give the boys vegetables or potatoes because they are usually drowned in butter and I've been told countless times that they're not sure what's in the gravy!
Inevitably they end up with spaghetti bolognese if there isn't already pre-added cheese, pizza without cheese if you can convince the waiter that is really what you are asking for, or chips and nuggets or sausages.
For day-trips and holidays, picnics are a great option as you can bring exactly what you want and cater for everyone.
We have holidayed abroad twice with our two boys and it is of huge benefit if you can speak a little of the language. This allows you to ask in restaurants about the dairy content of the food. I would recommend learning how to ask ‘Does this food contain dairy?' in the language of any country you are going to bring your child to.
I researched a little online before travelling so I knew in which supermarkets I could get soya milk and rice milk. We stayed in a campsite and bought our own food and barbecued frequently so we were in control of the ingredients.
It changed all our lives taking our boy off dairy; he wasn't sick anymore, had full nights of uninterrupted sleep and was in better form as a result. Mammy and daddy got uninterrupted nights too and the guilt and worry over what was wrong with my little boy was gone. It was only after he got better that we really realised how sick he had been. What a lovely, happy little boy we had when he was better.
A few months later, we heard of a specialist that deals with allergies and food intolerances in children. A visit to him and an allergy test ruled out any allergies, but we were advised it was most likely a cows’ milk protein intolerance and to continue excluding dairy and he would most likely |grow out of it.
We were told to try him every six months with a small amount of dairy to see if he could tolerate it.
When my second boy started exhibiting similar symptoms at only a few weeks old, I was a lot quicker to suspect a dairy intolerance and went down the same road with him.
They are both doing wonderfully on a dairy-free diet, and the older boy, now aged five, is starting to grow out of it.
There is an increasing amount of information becoming available online, and more and more substitutes available in supermarkets and health shops. However, it is a minefield.
Definitely do speak to a health professional if you suspect a food intolerance or allergy.
Keep a diary of all food and drink consumed and any symptoms and when they occur. It is so important to have a written record so you can explain to the doctor exactly what is happening.
Don't be afraid to go with your own instinct – you know your child better than anyone.
If you suspect a problem, do keep trying to get to the bottom of it.
Laura Kenny is the writer of the blog http://dairyfreekids.ie about shopping, cooking and living with dairy free kids.