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Milk Intolerance – Should I test my child?

Testing Toddlers – Dr Gill Hart offers advice to parents

YorkTest’s Scientific Director, Dr Gill Hart, is a leading expert on food intolerance.  After the recent news from Nestle of its intention to develop a milk allergy skin patch test for infants, the question on worried parents’ lips may be: “Should I test my child?”

Feeding is notoriously one of the most difficult battles parents with young children face, particularly when the youngster is facing discomfort and is out of sorts.

While a test might seem a quick route to a solution, it’s important to be aware of the bigger picture around testing of this kind. At YorkTest, we have over 35 years’ experience in health screening services to support wellbeing, so we can offer some insights on what mums and dads should consider first.

Firstly, allergy has become a go-to term for all kinds of dietary woes. While 2-3% of babies may suffer from milk allergy, many more are believed to suffer from food intolerances. Crucially, food intolerances would be missed by an allergy test.

So what’s the difference between food allergy and intolerance?


Food intolerance symptoms can take up to 72 hours to appear, while allergies can cause immediate and more severe reactions.

A milk allergy, as with most food allergies, starts during early infancy and happens when the body’s immune system sees harmless proteins in foods as foreign, and produces IgE antibodies. Cows’ milk protein allergy is one of the most common, but thankfully many children will grow out of this by the age of five.

Milk allergy symptoms come on very quickly and include:

  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Hives (red lumps on the skin)
  • Vomiting
  • Wheezing

In more severe cases, there can be breathing difficulties, which in rare circumstances can be fatal.

Milk intolerance is unrelated to milk allergy and there are different reasons why milk may cause a problem. There are two types of milk intolerance – one due to the milk sugar (lactose), which affects around 5% of people. A much wider problem affecting up to an estimated 40% of the population is intolerance to milk proteins and some even suffer from both types.

Milk protein symptoms typically occur up to a few days after drinking milk or eating dairy products – including yoghurts, butter, ice cream, cheese and chocolate. Other triggers could be items containing milk such as breakfast cereals, soups, processed meats, pizza, sauces, bread, ready meals, cakes and even sweets; it’s so important to check labels to find out whether milk is an ingredient.  This intolerance could cause:

  • Wind
  • Diarrhoea
  • Bloating
  • Stomach cramps
  • Eczema
  • Itchy skin


  • Make an appointment with your healthcare provider

Faced with an unsettled child, it might seem a tough call to wait for a doctor’s appointment or referral to an allergy clinic. A “quick result” home allergy test could be a tempting option but the best advice is to head to the doctor first to check there is no serious underlying condition and for a referral if necessary.

  • Avoid using guesswork to make changes to your child’s diet

If an allergy and/or lactose intolerance has been ruled out and you still think milk or another food might be the route of the problem, it’s important not to second guess and remove foods without identifying triggers first. In worst cases this could lead to under nourishment.

A credible food-specific IgG (food intolerance) programme, such as YorkTest, can identify problem foods and ensure that those that need to be eliminated are replaced with equally nutritious substitutes, under the guidance of a trained Nutritional Therapist.

  • Equip yourself with the facts about food allergy/intolerance tests

It’s important to find out the whole picture, so you can make an informed decision. Allergy tests will not test for food intolerances or lactose intolerance.. Food allergy tests don’t always pick up allergy reactions either, so for example, a baby or child that has not been exposed to peanuts will not necessarily show a positive on a peanut allergy test, but peanuts may still be a problem for them in future.

  • Carefully consider alternatives

Another hurdle is what action to do if a test is positive. If your child has milk allergy or milk protein intolerance then ideally all animal milks should be avoided – those from cows, sheep and goats are all very similar.

A range of alternative milks are available, but it’s important to consider what these contain – checking labels is a must-do when it comes to allergies and intolerances. Some of the replacements for animal milks include substitutes made from hazelnuts, almonds, rice, hemp, oats and coconut, and of course soya. Be aware that these alternatives can also cause allergy or intolerance reactions, and may not always be healthy when it comes to sugar levels.


At YorkTest, we are committed to optimising diet and wellbeing through health screening services that help identify a personal ‘food fingerprint’ (the unique pattern of trigger foods that those with food intolerances have). We don’t offer testing to under twos without a doctor’s referral, because the immune system is still developing at this young age.

For further information about the difference between milk and lactose intolerance, and more advice on intolerance testing check out the YorkTest website.


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