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Lactose intolerance is not a milk allergy. Having lactose intolerance means that your child can’t digest lactose. This is a sugar found in milk and other dairy products. To digest lactose, the body needs an enzyme (a kind of protein) called lactase. Lactase is made by cells in the small intestine. Your child’s body may not make enough lactase to digest lactose. Undigested lactose can cause uncomfortable symptoms. Lactose intolerance can be managed so your child can feel better.
Lactose intolerant children can have painful symptoms after eating or drinking dairy products. Common symptoms include:
Pain or cramping in the belly
The most common test used to diagnose lactose intolerance is called the hydrogen breath test. This test measures the level of a gas called hydrogen in your child’s breath. Hydrogen is produced by bacteria in the colon (large intestine) in response to undigested lactose. Hydrogen is carried through the bloodstream to the lungs, where it is breathed out. High levels of hydrogen in your child’s breath means that lactose is not being digested properly.
One way to manage your child’s symptoms is to reduce or eliminate sources of lactose. This includes most dairy products, such as:
Children with lactose intolerance can sometimes eat or drink dairy products without symptoms. At first, your child’s doctor may want to remove all lactose from your child’s diet to stop symptoms. Then, you can work with the doctor to learn what kinds of dairy products your child can tolerate. Your child's doctor may recommend a lactase enzyme supplement to help your child digest lactose without having symptoms.
Dairy products are a good source of calcium. Kids need calcium for bone growth and strength. Talk with your child’s doctor about ways to give your child enough calcium. Foods that contain calcium include:
Green vegetables such as broccoli, kale, bok choy (Chinese cabbage), and turnip greens
Fish with edible bones such as canned salmon
Alfalfa or soy sprouts
Tofu, soybeans, pinto beans, and navy beans
Calcium-fortified drinks such as orange juice, soy milk, and rice milk
Lactose-free milk and other lactose-free dairy products