Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written blog posts that I liken to the first two chapters of E’s FPIES journey: leading up to the (IgE) milk allergy diagnosis and from then until we eliminated grains from E’s diet. My goal in writing those posts was to give you a glimpse into what that time was like for us. I don’t think words can express the degree of anxiety, exhaustion, desperation, frustration and helplessness that we felt, but maybe I provided a little insight.
Many of you have asked me if these posts were difficult to write. They were. It is difficult to relive that period and it is difficult to pull the snippets of memories into a coherent story. It is also hard to remember what we knew when and what we felt when. But I think it’s important to tell our story, so that hopefully someone else who relates can learn from it. It is also cathartic and helpful for me to try to iron out all of the details and emotions. Honestly, I usually publish the posts feeling a huge sense of victory and pride. After remembering where we were, our current situation is amazing! If you have seen E lately you know that he is thriving. We are conquering FPIES every day. But it was quite a journey to get here and I’d like to continue to share that with you. If for no other reason than for you to be able to truly appreciate and join us in celebrating how far we have come.
I thought that this point in our journey would be a good time to take a step back and relate what we were experiencing to what I have since learned about FPIES.
Looking back at those first 7 months of E’s life, knowing what I know now, it is clear to me that he was experiencing chronic food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome (FPIES). Chronic FPIES results from the chronic ingestion of an allergen. It is a group of symptoms that continue pretty much constantly because the allergen, which is causing them, is eaten over and over. The classic initial presentation of FPIES is usually chronic because it is to one of the staples of the diet – cow’s milk or soy. The milk (often in the form of a baby formula) is the primary (or only) food that the infant is eating and it usually isn’t clear at first that it is related to the symptoms, which include chronic diarrhea and profuse vomiting. The vomiting and diarrhea can lead to failure to thrive, low blood pressure, and shock (6,108,110)*, which may require hospitalization.
E certainly had the vomiting! It makes sense the he was vomiting all the time because he was constantly exposed to his allergens. He was only three days old when we started supplementing his nursing with a couple of ounces of (milk-based) formula. Newborns eat every two hours and the timing starts at the beginning of a feeding. E ate slowly (probably because his little tummy was always upset) so we were pretty much feeding for an hour at a time, taking an hour break, feeding again, and so on. He didn’t sleep (again, probably because he was so uncomfortable), so he didn’t really have any time to get the allergens out of his system before I gave him more. The vomiting was constant with no obvious pattern because the feeding was also fairly constant (or at least it felt that way). It’s not clear if he was reacting to allergens in my breast milk (from my diet), which is possible but rare (6) but we followed every feeding with a couple of ounces of formula. So he was definitely getting milk (or soy for a few days) every 2 hours or so. Obviously, I had no idea that I was essentially poisoning him every time he ate, but I still feel incredibly guilty.
And then there was his weight. I’m not sure if anyone ever officially classified him as “failure to thrive” but it was definitely a phrase that went through my head more than a couple of times after learning that he was less than the 3rd percentile in weight and height at his two month well-visit. At the time I think the pediatrician assumed it was because my breast milk supply was low, and that may have been the case. However, I am also convinced it was because he was vomiting so frequently and in such large quantities that he wasn’t digesting the nutrients and calories that he was taking in. The poor kid was starving, despite the (seemingly constant) hour-long feedings. Keep piling on the mommy guilt, and now add the heartbreak of realizing how sick and hungry your little boy was during his first two months of life.
I don’t think E ever had the diarrhea, which is one of the things that originally gave me pause about the FPIES diagnosis. I’ve since learned that only about half of the children with FPIES have diarrhea (105). In addition, E rarely had any bowel movements. We were convinced he was constipated (a logical conclusion based on his lack of poop and apparent discomfort), but in hindsight it seems more likely that he didn’t have enough food being digested to make waste. It wasn’t that he couldn’t get the poop out, it was that there wasn’t any in there to begin with.
Finally, I have learned that about one-third of patients with FPIES also have atopic diseases such as eczema (6, 110), which explains E’s skin issues. I will say that as awful as the vomiting was and as upset as I was about his failure to thrive, I am so grateful that he never had any of the more severe symptoms such as extreme lethargy, hypotension, and shock, which occur in about 5% of patients (105).
When I read these descriptions of chronic FPIES, it seems as though they are describing E. It seems so clear that this is the correct diagnosis for him. I only wished we had realized it sooner. If had known and had done more research, I think the second chapter would have looked different. If I had known the stats concerning multiple allergies and grains, I would not have given him rice and oat. I now know that approximately 48% of FPIES patients react to more than one food (110) and 30% react to three or more (105). After milk and soy, rice and other grains are the most common triggers (105). About a quarter of those who react to milk and soy also react to one or more grains (110). Further, 40-50% of those who react to one grain, react to another grain (105, 110). It has also been noted that those with solid food FPIES are more likely to have eczema (110). Because of these findings, one group of researchers (105) recommended caution when introducing grains to children who react to milk and soy.
I feel like we were led somewhat astray by the recommendation to add rice or oat to E’s formula to help prevent the “spit-up” (which, by the way, I am now sure was actually vomit as a result of an allergic reaction). If I had known about the high rates of reactions to grains (with these two being the most common), I would have avoided those longer and tried to obtain a clearer baseline after eliminating milk and soy. So, yeah, in trying to help our baby, we actually made him worse. On the bright side, these data do support our decision to avoid all grains for a while.
It’s now clear to me that so many of the things E was experiencing – the eczema, the sleep problems, the poor weight gain, the general discomfort, and especially the vomiting – were the result of FPIES. Thankfully, this also meant that once the allergens were eliminated from his diet, he started to improve.
By the end of March 2013 his only source of nutrition was an elemental formula (which contains no proteins and is, therefore, hypoallergenic). We had removed milk, soy, and all grains from his diet. In April (8 months old) the vomiting stopped, his skin cleared up, and he started taking two good naps and sleeping through the night. And I could breathe again.
When E was about six months old (which is the recommended time frame), we were given the ok to introduce fruits and vegetables. I decided that it would be safest for me to make E’s baby food. I had never even imagined making baby food but I wanted the control of knowing exactly what he was getting and be sure that any contact with his allergens was avoided at every step in the process. We followed the four-day wait rule, that is recommended for all children (not just those with allergies). We introduced one new food at a time and offered it for four days before declaring it safe and moving on to the next food.
E loved everything we gave him! It’s actually fairly common for children who have food allergies or other food-induced ailments to have aversions to food and reject new foods. Not E! Before we knew it he was eating pureed avocados, bananas, sweet potatoes, pears, apples, carrots, peas, and the list kept growing. We even started to add meats and eventually baked egg (in preparation for his birthday cake). As he got a little older it was tricky to find good finger foods (the typical first finger foods are usually Cheerios or wheat/rice puffs – all primarily grains), but he did great with small pieces of bananas, avocados, and sweet potatoes. We eventually found Happy Baby Happy Creamies, which are coconut milk-based fruit and vegetable melts. These sweet treats became a favorite snack.
I spent the end of E’s first year perfecting my label-reading skills, enhancing my creativity, brushing up on my cooking techniques, and catching up on much-needed sleep. I remained in constant fear of an anaphylactic reaction to dairy but triple-checking to make sure we had the epi-pen before we went anywhere became second nature. E’s diet was limited but he wasn’t having any reactions. As we approached his birthday we did another round of skin tests, all of which (even dairy) were negative, as were blood tests. This was great news and a step in the right direction but not enough evidence to know for sure that his allergies were gone. At least two negative tests are needed and an oral food challenge to know that he has officially outgrown an allergy. So we allowed ourselves let out a little sigh of relief but didn’t let our guard down, just in case.
By the time we made it to August (and E’s first birthday) we had a lot to celebrate. We finally knew what was going on with our baby and felt in control of it. E was thriving, his weight had exceeded the 90th percentile, though he was still a little short (we’ll cut FPIES some slack and blame my short grandfather for that one). He was starting to walk and was generally an adorable, happy baby. We celebrated with a Curious George-inspired, dairy-free party complete with dairy-free, grain-free coconut-flour birthday cupcakes. E had a blast and loved his cake 🙂