Now that gluten is more commonly known, many health-conscious mothers aren’t eating it for their own health. So then comes the question, should I be introducing gluten to my baby, and if so when?
Let’s start with what gluten is.
Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains. The Coeliac Foundation refer to the Big Three that contain gluten as wheat, barley and rye. Triticale is a newer cereal that also contains gluten (I have never heard of this cereal before but we have been gluten free for years!).
Gluten’s job it to hold food together, so it is in a lot of processed and baked foods. It’s also delicious, making gluten-filled foods hard to resist!
Why is gluten an issue?
Gluten is made up of gliadin and glutenin. Some individuals’ immune systems detect gliadin in the body and decide it is a threat that it needs to get rid of. The problem is this can turn into an auto-immune condition that leads to destruction of the small intestine lining, as well as the myelin sheaths that cover all our nerves (and help them function). If this is the case, imagine what it could be doing to your baby’s brain development!
Coeliac disease itself does not occur in everyone who has an allergy to gluten. It occurs in genetically predisposed individuals, and their “coeliac gene” has to be triggered for them to become coeliac disease. Any kind of stress to the body can trigger these genes to switch on – pregnancy, surgery, major trauma, gut imbalances, infections, the list goes on. Once coeliac disease has been triggered, serious damage occurs in the small intestine and it requires a life-long gluten free diet (as well as some gut support and healing). Having coeliac disease increases the likelihood of having other auto-immune diseases. Literally the body’s own immune system cannot tell the difference between gluten and its own body parts, leading it to attack and destroy them. This is particularly noted in the brain and nervous system, as well as the thyroid.
Others don’t actually have an immune reaction to gluten, but they have difficulty digesting it, causing an intolerance that can feel an awful lot like an allergy. Think irritable bowel syndrome, eczema, brain fog, and chronic coughs or respiratory issues in these kinds of cases.
Another component of gluten-containing grains is called zonulin. Zonulin triggers the cells in the gut to separate, leaving small gaps between them through which large proteins can pass (straight into the bloodstream). Some of you may have heard of this as leaky gut. What most people don’t realise is that gluten does this to everyone, absolutely everyone! In healthy individuals, the gut will remain leaky for about 20 minutes after eating gluten. For those of you with coeliac disease, food allergies, or any gut disturbances, your gut remains leaky for a couple of hours! So imagine you already have a leaky gut, then you eat some gluten, and then you trigger your gut to become leakier. You’re opening yourself up to further food allergies, auto-immune disease, and even infections.
Furthermore, a portion of the population cannot properly digest gluten. This actually goes for casein too (found in dairy products – from all animals). What happens is they can only partially digest the gluten and casein, causing it to turn into a protein that is similar to morphine. They are exorphins, called gluteomorphine and caseomorphine. These proteins crosses the blood-brain-barrier into the brain cells, and work on the same receptors that morphine works on. In these people, gluten and casein produce a mild sedative effect that often goes unnoticed, however it can also lead to an addiction to the foods.
It is unlikely you’ll see this happen in your baby, but if you have older children with behavioural or learning difficulties, or fussy eating, this may just be part of the problem!
What are the symptoms of gluten allergy in my baby?
Because of the cross-reactivity of gluten to cells of the body, it can produce symptoms all over the place.
Here are a few of the most common ones in babies:
- Failure to thrive
- Large, bloated belly
- Explosive, smelly bowel motions
- Unexplained irritability and fussing
- Eczema or rashes
- Chronic snuffly nose or wheezy breathing
- Lactose intolerance
- Poor muscle development and tone
- Delayed milestones
- Poor sleep
In older children, gluten allergy has been associated with:
- ASD symptoms
- Brain fog
- Failure to concentrate in class
- Poor muscle tone
- Tummy aches, cramps and bloating
- Poor academic performance
- Poor mood and behaviour – angry and reactive or placid and forgetful
- Failure to gain weight
- Short stature
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Discoloured teeth and enamel loss
When should I introduce gluten to my baby?
Answer me this. Do you have a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy to gluten?
If YES you do –
Studies have shown that introducing gluten while breastfeeding will reduce the risk of your baby having a gluten allergy (probably not so much with sensitivities or intolerances though – we will get into this in a moment).
Do you eat gluten anyway?
There is the issue here that your baby may react to gluten purely because they are getting your antibodies through your milk, but do not have a true issue themselves. In this case it is worth trialling some gluten directly to your baby while breastfeeding, and if they react, removing gluten and its cross-reacting foods from your diet (strictly!) for 3 weeks, and then trialling gluten again.
After 3 weeks, your antibody levels in the milk will be minimal, meaning that if they react at this point it is because their own system can’t handle the gluten. If they respond poorly, keep your baby (and yourself) away from gluten for a few months, and see someone about your baby’s gut health and how to naturally support it.
Once you’re confident their gut is healthier, start a gluten trial again. If they are still reacting, might be a good idea to stay away from the gluten!
Do you avoid gluten?
Then unless you’re reacting to a cross-reactive food, you should not have any antibodies in your breast milk. This means when introducing gluten, chances are if there’s a reaction it is your baby’s body struggling with the gluten. In this case, you can remove the cross-reactive foods for 3 weeks and see if it makes a difference. If it doesn’t, then your baby may just have your sensitivity!
If NO you’re fine with gluten –
If you have been eating gluten throughout your pregnancy and breastfeeding journey with no issues with that level exposure seen in your baby, you can go ahead and introduce gluten when you’re ready. I would still recommend if you’re breastfeeding that you continue to do so while introducing gluten. If you’re formula feeding, it’s also no biggie.
If you’ve noticed changes in your baby when you eat gluten (through the milk) – you need to remove gluten and its cross-reacting foods for 3 weeks, then try to feed it to your baby again. If they still respond poorly, it’s time to keep away from gluten, and see someone about your baby’s gut health.
Do you avoid gluten for health reasons anyway?
If you would like to avoid gluten in your baby’s diet for personal health reasons, great. No issue. However if you want to reduce the risk of them having an allergy to gluten if and when they decide to eat it later in life, then introducing as per these recommendations will reduce that risk. Doesn’t mean you need to continue to feed it to your baby, but it is more about giving their immune system an exposure to it to develop tolerance.
Feeding your baby gluten between 4 and 7 months seems to be the time for lowest risk of gluten allergy and/or coeliac disease
What foods cross-react with gluten?
A cross-reaction means that the immune system cannot tell the difference between gluten and another protein, and as a result it reacts to both of them. Because some of the proteins below differ between each food, they might cause a reaction in some and not others. So it is best to remove them all to begin with for the 3 weeks, and then re-introduce each separately to detect any reactions.
- Casein (dairy products)
- Maize and corn
- Instant coffee
Foods that have been found to be contaminated during processing with gluten include:
- Gluten free products containing soy, millet, buckwheat, rice, and sorghum
Let’s get back to intolerances and sensitivities. The big difference between these and an allergy is that they do not trigger an immune response. Does this mean they’re less unpleasant? No way! Intolerances are called intolerant for a reason!
When you have food intolerances, it is likely you’ve got a leaky gut. Leaky guts are usually caused by a combination of poor food choices, gut bacteria imbalances (dysbiosis), and possibly some enzyme deficiencies. In adults, we also throw stress into the mix as well as medication, which doesn’t help. Most adults in this modern lifestyle have some form of gut dysfunction. People with gluten sensitivities still show up with too much zonulin in their blood. What they don’t show upon testing is the blood immune system changes seen with allergies. Recapping, zonulin causes your gut to be leaky. So even in non-coeliac gluten sensitivities, there is a significant release of zonulin triggering your gut to be leaky, which leads to further reactions to other foods as they enter the gut. We need to close those gaps in your leaky gut to truly support your health. And while removing gluten is one way, you need to address your entire diet, your gut health, and your lifestyle too.
The trouble for our babies lies in that we pass our microbiome (our body’s resident bacteria) to our baby. This happens during the pregnancy as well as the labour. We also pass some genes (remember the activity of genes is dependent on their environment, such as stress and infection). So it means if we are out of balance, so too is our baby. The good news is they have some time up their sleeve to really change their health before it becomes a more set-in-stone thing.
If your baby is reacting to gluten, chances are they have an underlying gut issue (inherited from you) and will respond well to some gut support, while on a gluten and casein free diet. If you also notice some cross-reaction occurring, make sure you steer clear of those foods too. Once your baby’s gut health has improved, you can trial gluten again.
How to Introduce Gluten to your Baby
Here is an order I have come up with. There’s really no perfect way to introduce any food, but I know some of you prefer to follow a recommendation. I’ve ordered these foods according to the amount of gluten and their digestibility, so that you’re starting with low gluten and slowly increasing it. This way your baby’s system doesn’t get overloaded from the beginning. There are SO many different types of wheat and you’ve possibly got your favourites to cook with – in this case, go with what you know! Don’t try something new to start with just because it’s on my list.
You can give these to your baby in the form of bread (or toast), pasta, gnocchi, muffins or baked goods. Any way you like really! Once you’re at the stage they are eating grains and gluten, you will have already introduced a number of other foods. You could (for instance) make a banana bread, or a fruit muffin. Or give them toast with avocado spread on top. I would suggest finding something that includes some fat or protein in the same meal (If you want to know more about this, in the Fearless Foodies program you learn all about how foods affect gut and hormone health).
- Cross-contaminants such as oats, rice, quinoa
- Whole wheat products
My Final Words
Gluten itself is not terrible. It is in a lot of foods, and it is a nice thought to have our children be able to tolerate all foods. However gluten is not a necessary nutrient. While many people remove gluten from their diets without truly needing to per se, there is absolutely nothing missing in a healthy gluten free diet. Give your baby a diet full of the gluten-free ‘junk’ food, filled with sugar, additives and fillers to taste somewhat like food, then we have issues. But if you’re feeding your baby whole foods such as vegetables, meats and healthy fats, then there’s no guilt in avoiding gluten, and no harm is being done to your baby. In fact, some adults with refractory coeliac disease (which means it doesn’t resolve with a gluten free diet alone) respond to a paleo (and sometimes auto-immune) diet. Paleo has no grains or dairy, so I hope after reading this article you can see how that will be supportive for gut healing and health.
It is important to remember that delaying the introduction of gluten in your sensitive, high-risk baby will not be beneficial if you do not seek appropriate help in correcting their underlying gut, immune, and nutritional imbalances in the meantime. You must get to the root of the problem to support your baby’s tolerance to foods.
If you got this far, you may be interested in our freebie – an e book including all the information on this blog post (for your convenience) plus 10 recipes you can use to slowly introduce gluten to your baby!
Unsure how to introduce gluten?
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This e-book set will run you through -
+ What gluten is, and why it's an issue
+ Ten recipes to safely introduce gluten to your baby