Eczema: Should eliminating dairy help?

My baby has had a severe rash on her face for several months. We are using hydrocortison cream and I have recently eliminated dairy products from my diet, but this has been extremely difficult. I have also started supplementing with soy formula. The few times I have given my baby the soy formula she has vomited it all up. I have not noticed a dramatic change in her skin and I'm feeling rather frustrated. Shouldn't eliminating dairy from my diet help clear up her rash?


Debbi Donovan

Debbi Donovan is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant, as well as a retired La Leche League Leader. For more than a decade, Debbi... Read more

Eczema, especially in a baby, is no fun! I know how frustrating this can be. I have personal experience with this problem. My two youngest children developed my tendency toward eczema, even though they were breastfed.

Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is a skin disorder where the skin becomes red and itchy. In babies, eczema can begin around the age of two to six months, often starting out as a rosy rash on the cheeks. It is most commonly seen in children with a family history of allergy and/or asthma. Facial eczema often goes away as mysteriously as it arrived when a child reaches the age of two or three.

Allergies are less common in exclusively breastfed babies. As early as 1936 the relationship was documented between eczema and early introduction of cow's milk (formula). Babies fed cow's milk were found to have seven times the incidence of eczema as breastfed babies. Several studies also have shown that when breastfed babies do get eczema it is due to a food eaten by the mother -- usually cow's milk (Chandra et al., 1986; Jakobsson et al., 1985; Gerrard et al., 1973.)

Though not all medical professionals agree with the results of these studies, eczema in the breastfed baby often does seem to be very much related to the mom's consumption of dairy products. With careful avoidance of all dairy products, it can still take quite some time until you would see improvement in dermatitis. Be sure to read all labels. While eating dairy-free, focus on other foods that you enjoy eating. Make a list of dairy-free foods that you can enjoy, and when you find a new one, add it to your list. It is also important to be sure that you are getting the nutrients you need from other foods now that you are not eating foods from this group.

Environmental factors definitely have an effect on your little one's eczema. When bathing your baby, don't use soap, or choose one that is non-drying (e.g. Dove). Avoid bubble baths, which can be very drying to your baby's skin. Winter in a cold climate often aggravates eczema. Use humidifiers around your house in the winter, making sure to clean them thoroughly every few days. When washing clothes, use a gentle detergent, and put clothes through a second rinse cycle to remove any detergent residue. When summer comes, you may see a big improvement in your little one's eczema. But watch out for the chlorine in swimming pools. It can be irritating to eczema-prone skin.

The hydrocortisone cream you are now using to treat your baby's eczema helps to reduce the inflammation and itching. Applying the hydrocortisone cream after a nice soak (of at least 10 minutes) before bed will help relieve nighttime itching that may wake your baby.

You also mentioned that each time you supplemented with a soy formula your baby vomited everything up. Soy is highly allergic for some children. If you decide to continue supplementing, your own expressed milk would be the best choice. If you would like to supplement with a formula, discuss the use of a less allergenic formula, such as Nutramigen with your baby's Health Care Provider. Unfortunately, these formulas are very expensive, don't smell or taste good, and are not always well tolerated by sensitive babies. Hoping these ideas are of some help. Best wishes!

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