Food Molecules pass from Mom to Baby: one cause of Infant Colic and Infant Allergy
Nursing mothers often ask if the food they eat might be triggering their baby’s fussiness, digestive discomfort, and allergies. The answer is: quite possibly.
Studies show that during pregnancy, large molecules from food can pass from a mother’s intestine into her bloodstream, pass through the placenta and reach the baby.(1)
These molecules do not belong in the uterus with the baby. Their presence triggers a defensive immune reaction in the baby, pre-conditioning the baby’s immune system to launch an immune reaction when they encounter these same food molecules in their mother’s milk.
These same molecules also pass into a mother’s milk. A baby’s bloated tummy, cramping and crying, or skin rashes, wheezing, fussiness or insomnia, can be a sign of their presence.
Leaky Gut and Prenatal Exposure
Please note: infant allergy is not normal. Allergies and auto-immune diseases are diseases of civilization, only developing after we began industrializing and eating processed foods, about 170 years ago. Large, whole food molecules are not supposed to be present in the bloodstream or in the uterus. They are supposed to be broken down into their smallest components while still in the intestine – into amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins. Only in their tiniest forms can they safely pass through the intestinal wall into the lymph and bloodstream to be used as energy and building blocks for health maintenance.
Large food molecules can leak through the intestinal wall if it is perforated with tiny spaces, allowing larger food molecules, toxins and digestive bi-products, to pass through.
Many of us have a somewhat permeable intestine as a result of the foods we eat, the medications we take, and the toxins we are exposed to. They irritate the gut lining and damage the gut flora.
This means that many babies are exposed to food molecules while still unborn, predisposing babies more vulnerable to an array of problems.
Researchers are now finding that prenatal exposure to food molecules is a major cause of infant colic and allergy. This exposure pre-conditions babies to respond with more inflammation when they encounter these same food molecules in their mother’s milk. This seems to be even more of a problem if there is a history of allergy or autoimmune disease in the family.
A study from 2016 gives us more information. Researchers, looking into the amniotic fluid of several mothers mid-pregnancy, were able to identify ten major food allergens in the fluid, including cow’s milk, fruit, egg, fish, nuts, and wheat.1
This means that these babies were being preconditioned to respond with inflammation to these foods. Indeed, colicky babies are in a state of mild “systemic inflammation” that already begins “in utero.”7
Inflammation, Flora, Colic
A baby can have several reactions to inflammation, such as sleeping problems, wheezing, rashes, eczema, fussiness, restlessness and general unhappiness, and of course, as infant colic.
By infant colic we mean the severe digestive pain that occurs nearly every day for several hours in about 20% of babies, starting at 2-3 weeks after childbirth and resolving at between 3-4 months of age.
Decades ago, infant colic was labeled a “medical mystery.” We have not moved far beyond that perspective, as many pediatricians, MDs, and pediatric nurses are still not knowledgable about the actual causes or best treatments for infant colic.
Because it is fairly common (20-40% of all babies worldwide) infant colic has been normalized. Rather than receiving information, and being made aware that colic may be a red flag and concern for future problems, parents are patted on the back and assured that colic is normal and will pass.
Clues are in the Flora
Another area of research has looked into the intestinal flora of colicky and non-colicky infants. It turns out that the intestinal flora of colicky babies is colonized by fewer strains of helpful bacteria and yeasts compared to the flora of non-colicky infants. The “depleted” flora of colicky babies makes their intestines more permeable and more prone to inflammation.
Research shows that the quality of the intestinal flora is better in babies who have been born vaginally and who are breastfed and that these babies have less infant colic. However, not all vaginally born and breastfed babies are free of infant colic–far from it.
In any case, a 2020 study examined the very first stool of meconium after childbirth of babies who went on to develop infant colic and those who did not, and found that the difference already exists at this time.2
Mom’s Own Health Impacts her Baby
Other research has noted connections between the mother’s diet during pregnancy as well as her long-term health history and her baby’s tendency to develop allergies and develop other health problems.3 4
Researchers are actively looking into ways to improve the mother’s diet and intestinal health, so as to bring improvement to both the mother and her prospective children.5
This is doubly important because research now also documents that infant colic–once considered normal and harmless–is predictive of digestive problems, allergy, and even learning and neurological problems later in life.6
I personally take infant colic very seriously, having gone through it with my firstborn and wishing I had known then what I know now. In my book Mother Food I describe many of these entangled factors and suggest ways to unwind them and improve everyone’s health and wellbeing. I believe it is possible to prevent infant colic or to improve the symptoms of infant colic, in almost all cases, and that this should be a top priority for new parents and their healthcare providers.
For more information about treating candidiasis naturally (fungal infection is a common component of a permeable intestine and the proclivity for allergies and autoimmune disease) see the article here.
This blogpost began by asking the question: does what a mother eats somehow get into her milk and trigger her baby’s colic?
The short answer is yes.
The long answer has to do with the mother’s permeable intestinal lining, with a baby’s intestinal flora, and with other factors that influence the baby’s proclivity to develop allergies.
Indeed, many areas of research today are describing links between a mother’s health and her baby’s tendencies toward health or disease.
Every one of us, whether parents or health professionals, has to dive into the research for ourselves: our health authorities are recalcitrant in this area. It is easier for our authorities to normalize the problem and pretend there is nothing to do about it than to admit to there being a problem that pharmacologically cannot be resolved, a health problem that requires a proactive holistic approach and dietary measures to correct.
- Pastor‐Vargas, C, Maroto, AS, Díaz‐Perales, A, Villalba, M, Esteban, V, Ruiz‐Ramos, M, de Alba, MR, Vivanco, F, Cuesta‐Herranz, J. Detection of major food allergens in amniotic fluid: initial allergenic encounter during pregnancy. Pediatr Allergy Immunol 2016: 27: 716– 720.
- Korpela, K., Renko, M., Paalanne, N. et al. Microbiome of the first stool after birth and infantile colic. Pediatr Res 88, 776–783 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-020-0804-y
- Kim et al., Maternal Perinatal Dietary Patterns Affect Food Allergy Development in Susceptible Infants. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice 7:2337-2347.e7 (2019) 10.1016/j.jaip.2019.03.026
- Rhoads et al., Infant Colic Represents Gut Inflammation and Dysbiosis, The Journal of Pediatrics, 2018: 203: 55-61.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2018.07.042.
- 1.Hurd L. Optimizing the Microbiome and Immune System With Maternal Diet in Pregnancy and Lactation May Prevent Food Allergies in Infants. ICAN: Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition. 2015;7(4):212-216. doi:10.1177/1941406415595861
- Savino, F., Castagno, E., Bretto, R., Brondello, C., Palumeri, E. and Oggero, R. (2005), A prospective 10‐year study on children who had severe infantile colic. Acta Pædiatrica, 94: 129-132. doi:10.1111/j.1651-2227.2005.tb02169.x
- Pärtty, Anna∗; Kalliomäki, Marko∗; Salminen, Seppo†; Isolauri, Erika∗ Infantile Colic Is Associated With Low-grade Systemic Inflammation, Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition: May 2017 – Volume 64 – Issue 5 – p 691-695 doi: 10.1097/MPG.0000000000001340