Heidi here today.
Flashback to last November. I’ve just been diagnosed with celiac disease. I have hope that there’s a solution for my symptoms: a gluten-free diet. At the same time, I have no idea how I can switch to a gluten-free diet. Perhaps that’s a familiar feeling?
Life has been hard lately. I’m always exhausted, and I have unpredictable and intense stomach cramps that come and go. Sometimes, especially when the cramps strike, I struggle to take care of my baby. None of my clothes fit well. I see my happy, healthy boy with his rolls of baby fat, and I look in the mirror and wonder how and when I became so unhealthily thin. Have my cheeks always looked like that?
Not so long ago, I was watching the numbers slowly climb upward on the bathroom scale as our baby boy grew inside me. Those were exciting days of joyful anticipation. I don’t remember how quickly I shed those pounds (well, I remember the first 8 or so pretty vividly). It was pretty exciting to be able to squeeze back into my old jeans when he was just a month old (yes, hate me). To my surprise, I shed all the baby weight within the first three or so months. Then as I kept losing weight, there was only so long that I could chalk it up to breastfeeding.
Yes, breastfeeding. That oh-so-controversial topic. I’ll tell you right now, I’m staunchly in camp “fed is best.” When the mother’s health and circumstances allow it, I think breastfeeding is wonderful—for baby and mom—and I feel so blessed to have been able to nurse our son. I’ll support any mom who want to try nursing her baby. At the same time, I know lots of stellar moms who are feeding their babies formula or who supplement breast milk with formula. Many of those moms long to be able to breastfeed their babies but find themselves to be physically unable to. Try as we might, believe as we will, we simply can’t control everything about our bodies. My rapidly declining weight was proof of that. Have I mentioned that I was eating more than ever before and that I was still hungry ALL the time?
With my new celiac diagnosis, I faced an unexpected dilemma. Was it healthy for me to continue breastfeeding our son? Was nursing taking away nutrients that I needed to heal? Never having met someone else in my situation, I scoured the internet. I found a plethora of studies about the effect of breastfeeding
and the timing of gluten introduction on the infants’ likelihood and timing of developing celiac disease. Since our son had already been introduced to gluten, there wasn’t much I could do here. All evidence pointed to the fact that breastfeeding is good for babies and that breastfeeding longer (at least one year) correlated with good health. No surprises there.
But what about the mom? What about me?
I discovered that other mothers with celiac disease had successfully breastfed their babies. The only trouble was, all the stories I found were about moms who were already on a gluten-free diet and had their celiac disease under control before becoming pregnant.
Problem: I didn’t know this was coming. I didn’t plan ahead. How could I?
I’m guessing that someone out there, much like the Heidi of last November, is searching the internet, trying to figure out whether or not she, with a new celiac diagnosis in hand, can continue breastfeeding her baby without jeopardizing her own health. Dear mom, my story is for you.
I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist or a gastroenterologist. I am simply a mom who loves her little boy and wants to be the best mom for him she can be—and that means taking care of both of us.
I visited my family doctor on November 2, 2015. On that day, I saw the scale reach its lowest point yet. After describing my symptoms, I was given several blood tests. When I received the results on November 5, I learned that I have celiac disease and was prescribed a gluten-free diet. I immediately gave up all gluten in my diet, and my stomach cramps disappeared overnight and my weight suddenly stabilized. My health was far from picture perfect, but at least it was moving in the right direction.
This was the point when I struggled to figure out whether it was safe—for my health—to keep nursing my baby. With the emotional and social stress of overhauling my diet, I decided not to introduce the added emotional stress of weaning our son. Whether or not it was true, my husband and I reasoned that if breastfeeding had hurt my body, most of the damage had already been done anyway.
At the beginning of January (after about two months of eating gluten free), I saw a nutritionist. Her opinion was that since my weight had stabilized, there was no issue with continuing to breastfeed. She did emphasize the importance of eating enough calories and making sure I was getting enough of several key vitamins and minerals in my diet.
As time went on, I gradually began to gain weight. In April, I had blood work that showed that I didn’t have any significant deficiencies (for example, my iron count was good). I also had an upper endoscopy (a procedure that probably should have been recommended by my doctor when I was first diagnosed—we’ll talk about that in another post). It showed that the villi in my small intestine had almost completely healed (close analysis showed a very, very small amount of damage to the villi), and my doctor reported that I no longer had “active celiac.” Basically, my gut had recovered. As long as I maintained my gluten-free diet, nutrient absorption was no longer an issue.
A few months later, in July, almost exactly 8 months after my celiac diagnosis, I weaned our son. Since then, I’ve gained a couple more pounds. Hooray!
What I Learned
These are things that I learned from my own experience, not from any medical training.
- If you have just been diagnosed with celiac disease, talking to a doctor or nutritionist about whether you should continue breastfeeding your baby is always a good choice. Remember to think about your own health and your baby’s health.
- You can request to have blood work done to check for vitamin and nutrient deficiencies. Making sure that you’re getting adequate nutrition is important. (Keep in mind that your body will give its best to make quality milk for your baby, so good nutrition is especially vital if you choose to continue nursing your baby.)
- If you have lost too much weight and continue to lose weight on a gluten-free diet, you should seriously consider weaning your baby. If your weight stabilizes or you gain weight, that’s probably a good sign that you’re doing OK.
- If a breastfeeding mother is diagnosed with celiac disease, it is possible for her health to improve while she continues breastfeeding her baby. It worked for me.
If you have experience with a similar situation—or know someone who has—please share in the comments. Thanks!
See this post and other gluten-free and healthy living posts on Allergy Free Thursdays.