What is Lactose intolerance and how common is it in children?

Are you thinking your little one could be suffering from lactose intolerance, but unsure what it is exactly? Lactose intolerance describes the symptoms related to the incomplete break down of lactose, the naturally occurring sugar in breast milk and cow’s milk. This happens when there is an imbalance between the amount of the enzyme lactase in the gut, which is responsible for breaking down lactose into simple sugars the body can use, and the amount of lactose consumed. Lactose intolerance typically involves unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms, usually occurring within 30 minutes – two hours of consuming food or drink that contains lactose.

How common is lactose intolerance in children?

While some new-borns may temporarily experience lactose intolerance as a consequence of premature birth, gastrointestinal illness or from certain drug treatments, fortunately it is relatively uncommon for babies to be born with an intolerance to lactose. Because lactose is found in human breast milk, it makes sense that babies would need to be able to digest their one and only source of food for the first 6 months of life.  Lactose is a primary source of energy during the first year of life supporting early growth. A very small number of babies are born with a congenital lactase deficiency which you would have found out about very soon after they were born.  

If you suspect your little one may be suffering from lactose intolerance, then it is important to get them properly tested and diagnosed by a healthcare professional, as the symptoms are very similar to other gastrointestinal disorders. In some cases a lactose free formula may be required but this approach should only be initiated following the advice of a healthcare professional. 

Lactose intolerance can sometimes be confused with a Cow’s Milk Protein allergy, which is more common in babies. Learn more about the difference between the two conditions and the important implications for dietary management.  

Lactose intolerance can become more common as we get older but even then those it affects may not need to exclude lactose from the diet completely. In fact, most people with lactose intolerance can comfortably consume some yoghurt, cheese or a glass of milk when spread out over the day – especially when eaten with a meal.