Long-time readers will remember that Minnow has sleep issues. At nine months old, she is still waking up between 4 and 8 times per 11 hour night. But things now are a hell of a lot better than they used to be, because now I can cuddle or nurse her right back to sleep in most cases.

It wasn’t that way a few months ago. Back then, Minnow would wake up screaming and only begin to calm down when Fish or I got up, held her upright, massaged her tummy, and helped her pass prodigious quantities of gas. If we sat in the rocking chair with her and held her at an angle, she could sleep fairly well, but within a few minutes of returning to bed and the horizontal position, Minnow would be writhing again. We seemed to have two choices: help her sleep, and go sleepless ourselves or let her cry it out on her own all night long (which we weren’t about to do).

We knew that digestive troubles were often related to intolerances of common foods, even when processed through the mother’s milk. Dairy products are the most common source of tummy troubles for infants, and I’d half-heartedly tried week-long dairy eliminations a couple of times over the previous six months. Nothing had really made a difference.

But at the six month mark, and with me starting a new job, something had to change. I consulted with Minnow’s new pediatrician, who basically advised me to either “strip my diet down to bare bones” or switch her to formula. During the first few days at Minnow’s new daycare, I didn’t have enough of a milk supply on hand to give her all breast milk bottles, so I supplemented with a soy-based formula. After 3 days of one formula bottle per day, Minnow was definitely having a digestive reaction. She had lots of awful green stools and couldn’t sleep at all, even with us holding her. So almost immediately, I knew that soy wasn’t going to work for us.

I mulled over the wisdom of soil mama, whose daughter EcoBaby is allergic to just about everything. She had told me that milk proteins and soy proteins were very similar to each other, and that many babies with milk intolerances also couldn’t handle soy. I couldn’t imagine giving up breast-feeding Minnow, and if soy and dairy were both likely to be problems, formula was virtually out anyway. There are elemental formulae, but they cost hundreds of dollars per month, and health insurance won’t cover the costs. So my only option was to go on an elimination diet and see if we could figure out all of the foods I was eating that were causing Minnow’s problems.

The first steps were easy enough. I opened up my trusty Dr. Sears’ Baby Book and made a list of all the foods that were the most common allergens in infants. These foods included: dairy, soy, eggs, wheat, corn, peanuts, tree nuts, beef, chicken, shellfish, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onion, tomato, chocolate, caffeine, and a few others. I figured that if I could keep those foods out of my diet for a month they’d be completely eliminated from my system and we should see some improvement. Then all we’d have to do was slowly add them back in. The next step was to go shopping. That first trip to the grocery store taught us that our days of eating processed foods were over and that everything would have to be purchased single ingredient and prepared by us. Minnow was just starting to eat solid foods, and for a while her diet and my diet closely resembled each other: rice, sweet potatoes, bananas, peas, oatmeal, etc. After a while, we figured out a few more things that I could eat: turkey burgers, fish fillets, ham, lentils, potato chips…

Minnow began sleeping much better at night and we were pretty happy with the progress. Soon the month was up and it was time to start adding foods back into my life. Only we needed to alternate new foods for me with new foods for her and stagger each of them at least four days apart so that we could watch for digestive reactions. That meant that I got about one new food a week. In the end, my month of dietary stricture has turned into about three months of carefully reading labels, avoiding eating out, etc.

In the last few weeks we’ve made remarkable progress. We now know that dairy, soy, and corn are OUT, but most other things are back in. Unfortunately, if you eliminate dairy, soy, and corn, you’ve just eliminated about 99% of processed food items and things you can buy in a restaurant or cafeteria. For example, most breads have dairy or soy or both. Many, many items list vegetable oil as an ingredient. Vegetable oil is a nebulous term that can include both soybean oil and corn oil. There are no butter or margarine spreads that I can eat, and I don’t dare risk salad dressing. Chocolate is still out because I can’t find a chocolate bar that doesn’t contain soy lecithin.

Here’s what I’ve learned.


  1. #1 ScienceMama
    November 5, 2007

    Minnow is lucky to have such a dedicated Mom so dedicated to breastfeeding and keeping her well!

    How long do you plan to breastfeed Minnow? It sounds like you’re going for at least a year, but will you go longer?

  2. #2 catswym
    November 5, 2007

    you could put olive oil on toast (instead of margarine/butter). you may already do that.

  3. #3 Sara
    November 5, 2007

    the last comment about the chocolate had me reaching for the bar of Lindt sitting on my desk, but it lists “lecithine de soja” (and sojalecithine, Sojalecithin, lecitina di soja, ah the joys of multiple language packaging.)
    But next time I’m at the store I will see what I can find, if such chocolate exists surely they will sell it here!

  4. #4 ScienceWoman
    November 5, 2007

    ScienceMama: I’m not sure how long I’ll keep bfing her. As she eats more and more table food, I’d imagine that the some of the feedings (and pumpings) will slowly drop out. It’s such a special thing for us, that I’m hoping pre-bedtime and morning feedings stick around ’til she’s 2 or more. If it’s only 1-2 feedings a day I’d be able to go in the field or to a conference without her, and that would make life easier. Right now it’s such an important part of our lives that I really haven’t given much thought to quitting.

    Catswym: I got tree nuts back before wheat, so I can always spread a nut butter (or avocado!) on toast. But thanks for the suggestion.

  5. #5 justapie
    November 5, 2007

    I am really glad you decided to share this experience. I was considering trying an elimination diet myself, to see if I can find the cause of various problems that my son seems to be having, but I never really did it the whole way. What stops me is that I don’t really know if there is a food related problem. At various times I blamed teething, an infection, developmental phases, and so on. I wonder, even if he gets better, how will I know that it was because of my dietary restrictions? There seem to be too many variables in this experiment…

  6. #6 ScienceWoman
    November 5, 2007

    Justapie: I’d encourage you to give it a try if you think it might be dietary. I hate thinking that all of Minnow’s distress was my fault. Anyhow, the proof that it was dietary is not in the improvement of symptoms when you remove foods. It’s that you try putting them back in and your child reacts again. You wait for a time when you don’t think teething, illness, etc. are an issue and then you try suspect foods. It is hard though, and you need to be patient.