The Dairy Dilemma

Can a diet free of cheese, yogurt and milk help ease your child’s eczema?

When my son was first born, I used to marvel at how soft and smooth his skin was. I carefully moisturized him post bath to keep it silky, and I found myself sniffing his little head every now and then for a whiff of that indescribable scent that only babies have (kind of like that “new car smell,” only it’s a “new kid smell”).

But around three or four months all of that faded. Jack developed dry, flaky patches all over his face and chin, and he perpetually sported a red, slapped-cheek look. At first I thought it was dry skin—the rashes started as soon as the temperatures began to drop—but no amount of Aquafor could return his skin to its former glory. (I’m ashamed to admit this, but like a Vogue photo editor, I even air brushed our Christmas card so his complexion would appear a little clearer.)

Finally, at his six-month check up, my doctor took one look at him and said, “Looks like he has eczema.” By this point, he had patches on his torso, arms and legs, and scratches all over from his constant itching. It broke my heart. The doctors prescribed a series of topical creams to combat the flare-ups, and I limited his baths to twice a week and continued to lather him nightly with Aquafor. But having spent a lifetime at dermatologists due to my own eczema, psoriasis and seborrhea, I knew that the medicines and creams only offered temporary relief, not a cure.

Around a year, nothing seemed to be improving, so at the urging of my sister (a well-qualified doctor) and my other sister (a well-qualified mother of eight), I decided to remove all dairy from Jack’s diet. Some studies show a link between common allergen foods like dairy and the skin condition, and I figured, what do we have to lose? Still, I was a little nervous about switching to soy milk because it doesn’t have as much of the fat and nutrients found in cow’s milk that babies need, and a small percentage of kids who have problems with dairy, also have issues with soy. But I was willing to give it a try.

Since Jack is young and limited in his diet, it wasn’t that challenging a switch. We took him off cheese, yogurt and milk-based formula, and gave him fortified vanilla soy milk instead. (You should definitely talk with your pediatrician about removing dairy or any food or food group from your child’s diet.)

Within a week, Jack’s skin cleared up completely. He even started sleeping better, and much to our delight, through the night on occasion. On the down side, the soy milk made his breath and dirty diapers smell like, well, the Jersey shore (you know, that smell that hits you when you roll down the window to pay for the Egg Harbor toll), but my husband and I were willing to subject ourselves to the stench if it made our son feel better.

Just when we thought we had the problem beat, the flare-ups have come back with a vengeance. Jack’s chunky legs once again feel like sand paper, and the scratches are back on his belly. So, I’ve thrown up my hands in defeat and made an appointment with a pediatric allergist to determine once and for all if there is an allergy causing his condition. But I’ve decided to wait until my doctor’s appointment to discuss reintroducing dairy—his flare-ups have been clearing up faster on his new diet.

Do other parents have suggestions or frustrations in dealing with their kids’ eczema? Has anyone had success with the dairy-free diet?

Anne Taulane is a mom and the editor of Pennsylvania’s Wine & Spirits Quarterly. When she’s not thinking about wine and spirits, she writes about family, health, and pregnancy.