Lactose is a form of sugar found in milk and milk products. Proper digestion of lactose requires an enzyme that is called lactase. Almost all babies are born with adequate levels of lactase, but levels of this enzyme decline with aging. Without sufficient lactase, many people lose the ability to digest milk as they get older, particularly those of Asian, South American and African descent.
For these individuals, consumption of milk can lead to abdominal bloating, gurgling and discomfort, flatulence, nausea and loose stools. These unpleasant symptoms subside when milk and milk products are removed from the diet.
Lactose intolerance is fairly common around the world. In the United States, it is estimated that as many as 25 percent of the white population and 75 to 90 percent of black, Native American and Asian American populations are lactose intolerant. This can make it challenging for pregnant moms to meet their calcium needs from diet alone. However, almost half of women who are lactose intolerance regain the ability to digest lactose during pregnancy! This means that pregnant moms with a past history of lactose intolerance temporarily may be able to drink milk.
If you've been lactose intolerance and would like to find out whether you can tolerate milk products during pregnancy, start by drinking a small amount of milk. It may take a bit of trial and error to learn how much milk you can tolerate without symptoms. Many people with low levels of the enzyme lactase find they're able to digest small amounts of milk, less than one cup, and only become symptomatic with higher quantities.
If you're still unable to easily digest milk products, there are over-the-counter products that can be of help. Lactase enzyme tablets can be taken before meals that include milk, and lactase enzyme drops can be added to milk to improve digestion. You can also purchase Lactaid®, a brand of milk that contains lactase and is therefore easily digested. Additionally, yogurt and fermented products, such as cheese, may be better tolerated than milk. Soy-based products fortified with calcium are another healthy alternative for lactose-intolerant individuals.
Remember that calcium and vitamin D are important nutrients from milk that you need during pregnancy. If you choose to cut back on milk products, make sure to take a daily calcium supplement throughout your pregnancy to ensure healthy bones and teeth for you and your baby.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.