Nothing breaks the heart, confounds the mind and puts life on hold for new parents like a baby with painful gas. This very common but utterly awful experience tortured and perplexed me in those dizzying first weeks as a new mom.
As my newborn grunted and cried, squirmed and strained every night for hours on end, I desperately consulted with other moms, with family, and of course, Google, searching for any answer to my breastfed baby’s bubbly belly. I tried all the classic fixes, like leg pumping, belly massaging, probiotic drops, gripe water to no avail. Then I discovered, with dread, one possible solution: removing all dairy products from my diet.
I learned that many babies have difficulty digesting the protein found in cows’ milk, which can reach them through breast milk, and so cutting my own dairy intake could perhaps be the solution to my baby’s tummy troubles.
It was! And after a difficult but worthwhile week without my beloved milk and cheese, baby and I both started getting some sleep (and sleep definitely trumps cheese!).
But soon there would be a new issue keeping me up at night. As I got deeper into researching how to go from cheese-junkie to dairy-devoid, I learned more about the modern dairy industry. What I discovered was heart-breaking and life-altering, and I quickly came to realize I could no longer ignore what should have long been obvious: that the dairy industry is inherently cruel and that as a breastfeeding mother in particular, the idea of stealing a mother cow’s milk meant for her baby, to feed myself and my family, is just wrong.
Of course I always knew that the milk and dairy products I’d long loved came from cows, goats and sheep. But all I really knew of farms came from children’s books and the stories my mother told me about visiting her grandparents as a child. As the typical narrative goes, the happy dairy cow lived outdoors on the small farm and was milked by hand to provide wholesome sustenance for the family. It is a simple, idyllic notion, one that allowed me, like so many others, the capacity to blissfully consume ice cream, yogurt, cheese, milk, etc., for so much of my life. But as I’ve since come to learn, that’s just not how it works anymore.
Since the days of my great-grandparents’ farm, dairy production has been transformed into a massive industrialized system with automated machinery and very little human care, where profit is the priority and animal welfare always suffers. And in today’s dairy industry, it’s mothers and babies suffering most.
“On modern dairy farms babies are taken from their mothers at birth or very soon after,” explains Canadian animal rights lawyer and director of farmed animal advocacy for Animal Justice, Anna Pippus. “On all farms, cows are impregnated for the sole purpose of inducing lactation. On all farms, the babies are removed at birth and given formula while their mother’s milk is diverted to humans.”
I suppose most people just never really stop to think about how animals are able to produce all that milk for human use. I sure hadn’t. But then, as I breastfed my own baby, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. As I coped with common breastfeeding issues like weak latch, painful engorgement, fearing mastitis, etc., I couldn’t help but think of how those mother cows must feel as their bodies are used as machines, being impregnated, giving birth, then milked, over and over again.
As I revelled in our eventual success, watching my baby gaining weight and thriving due to the unparalleled nutrition of my liquid gold, I thought of those baby cows all alone in their solitary hutches, being bottle or bucket-fed by strangers who care only about their monetary value. But worst of all, as baby and I shared in those quiet but profound moments, staring into each others’ eyes as she nursed, it was the sound of those mothers and calves both bellowing in agony as they are ripped away from each other, that would often creep into my mind.
“Many farmers admit that the separation causes immense distress to both [mother and calf],” says Pippus. “There are documented instances of mother cows going to extraordinary lengths to try to get their babies back, or hide their babies from farmers.” Pippus also points out that like humans, mother cows and calves produce the bonding hormone — oxytocin — at birth. “The bonding attachment emotions we humans mothers experience giving birth to our own babies is induced by oxytocin, and it induces the same emotions in cows.”
To then learn further that female calves go on to be enslaved in the same cycle of perpetual forced insemination, birth and lactation, until deemed useless and sent to slaughter at a quarter of their natural life, and that most male babies are fed into the veal industry, if not immediately shot for being deemed useless by-products, well that did it if for me. It was time to ditch dairy for good.
The good news is that since eliminating dairy from my life, I’ve learned how unnecessary it was to begin with and how easy it is for both baby and I to thrive without it. In fact, the likely reason my newborn had such trouble with cows’ milk was because, as registered dietician, Dr. Pamela Fergusson believes, beyond breast milk in infancy, humans are not meant to digest dairy and thus many suffer from dairy allergies due to the body’s sensitivity to the foreign protein. “Our bodies are treating them as a foreign protein and attacking them,” she says.
Dr. Fergusson says that although dairy milk is so often promoted as an essential and perfect food for children and adults, “It absolutely is not. There is no magic thing you can get in dairy milk that you can’t get in other whole foods,” she says. “I don’t think it’s necessary for us to be exposing ourselves or our babies to dairy milk.” (Dr. Fergusson does note that in the case of children under five years of age who are pickier eaters and no longer breastfeeding, fortified soy milk can be offered to ensure important nutritional requirements are met.)
Of course giving up my deep adoration for mac n’ cheese and butter tarts, and abandoning my even deeper-rooted belief that dairy is a normal and necessary part of the human diet was not at all easy; a 30-year love affair is hard to undo. Thankfully though, the world of all things cheesy, creamy and buttery now extends beyond animal products to include pretty ingenious and delicious nut, soy, coconut and other plant-based options. Cashew cheeses and creams in particular have become my new guilt-free pleasure.
Today my baby’s belly is a happy, healthy place, and my heart is on the mend as we opt out of contributing to the demand for products generated by an industry that breaks apart mothers and babies to steal the life sustaining milk meant only to grow small calves into grand cows. We enjoy protein packed beans, calcium rich sesame butter, good-fat filled avocados and loads of other plant-based foods and milks that make dairy obsolete.
And truth be told, I think my new dairy-free mac n’ cheese is even tastier, and more importantly, it certainly won’t keep anyone up at night.