As I’m sitting here, face and neck covered in itchy hives from a cantaloupe-induced allergic reaction, I thought – how fitting that I planned to write about food allergies this week. Specifically, what you as a parent should know in order to make the best food decisions for your little one.
Like many parenting ideas, there is an ever-changing debate over when and how to introduce foods, especially those with a high allergy potential. Before my son was on solids I started researching what foods to introduce and in what order, cataloging them into a neat little excel chart (Type A personality right here). When it came to high allergen foods, there was no consensus. I’d Google “strawberry allergies” and one site would tell me that they were a perfect early food for baby, while the next site declared them hazardous materials that should most definitely not be consumed before age 2-3. Even the doctors at our Children’s Medical Group had differing ideas. One gave me a list of foods to put off until after a year, including wheat, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, celery, fish and sesame. The next visit we saw a different pediatrician who said “Eh…that’s the old school of thought. Stay away from honey and egg whites, and peanut butter because it’s hard for them to swallow…other than that you’re fine”. So what’s the deal? If I hold off am I being overly paranoid? Or am I potentially putting my child’s health at risk by giving them certain foods too soon? Only you can make that decision, but here is some information to help you feel more comfortable about your choice.
For starters – allergies are very real. Not overly common, but still very real. It’s the body’s immune system reacting to a food like it’s a threat. I’ve met people convinced that allergies are made-up. Even my loving husband likes to use “air quotes” when my allergies come up in conversation. “Yeah she’s *allergic* to shellfish and melons”. Thank you darling. I assure you, there’s nothing imagined about your throat constricting and being unable to get a proper breath. Or in my current case, having skin that looks like it was dusted with poison oak…
There is currently no way to predetermine allergies, including looking at genetics. If you yourself are prone to allergies, there is a higher chance for your child (much higher chance – 70% – if both parents have food allergies), however, just because you don’t have allergies doesn’t put your child in the clear.
Allergies can come and go throughout your life. Kids with allergies often outgrow them, and alternately many don’t develop an allergy until adulthood. Example – the first decade of my life I ate cantaloupe and shellfish. Overtime they began to cause swelling in my mouth, worsening with each ingestion, until I experienced mild anaphylaxis (airway closing) that led to a full allergy panel, which declare those foods off-limits.
Many are unaware that allergic reactions won’t occur the first time a food is eaten. Even if it’s a food someone is highly allergic to, it takes that initial ingesting to “prime” your body’s defense system for the next time. So what you really want to watch for is the second and third time you give your baby a food. While the time-frame of when to give certain foods is debatable, across the board nearly all pediatricians seem to recommend trying new foods one at a time for several days each before putting them on the “safe” list. I didn’t follow my own advice and gave my son a sip of my pumpkin soup one day. He broke out in blotchy hives within an hour – and I had no idea what from, as there were about a dozen ingredients in the soup that he had never had before. While it might seem tempting to dive in and give them multiple new foods at once, or foods with several ingredients, the safest way is to go one at a time.
Try to introduce foods during the daytime on a weekday, so that if a mild reaction occurs you can get your child to a doctor. Avoid trying a new food before bed, as you never know if it will upset their tummies and cause a fussy night. You might want to keep baby Benadryl on hand, and always introduce a new food with “safe” foods that you know their systems tolerate well, so you can link any reaction to the new food.
What does an allergic reaction look like? Reactions can take many forms, but knowing what to look for can help in seeking medical care and advice:
Rash or blotchy skin, rosy cheeks, neck or upper torso; red, watery eyes; runny nose; coughing; wheezing; hoarseness; dizziness; weak/rapid pulse; fainting; pale skin; sweating; swelling of throat, face, lips or tongue; severe abdominal pain; vomiting.
If an allergy is suspected, your pediatrician may order an allergy blood or skin test. The blood test measures the release of chemicals responsible for allergic reactions. The skin test involves scratching or “pricking” small amounts of the suspected allergen into the arm or back of the patient to view the body’s response.
A final note – food intolerance’s, food sensitivities, and food allergies are very different, though often confused (which could be why statistics show 1/3 of the population believes they have an allergy, when in reality only 3-5% do!). Being intolerant to a food, like lactose or gluten intolerant, means your body lacks an enzyme for digesting the food, which can cause bloating, gas or cramps, but is not life-threatening. Food sensitivities can cause heartburn, reflux, or nausea, but are also not life threatening. If milk upsets your stomach, but eating yogurt or cheese is fine – you may have a sensitivity or intolerance, but are not allergic. If one is allergic to a food they cannot consume it in any form.
In the end, make your decision based on what’s comfortable for you. If you feel better waiting, then wait. Your child won’t lose anything by waiting to eat a certain food. If you feel confident that the odds of having an allergic reaction are potentially very slim, then jump in! Every child is different and you know what’s best!
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