How Parents Can Help Prevent Food Allergies in Kids

Once a baby begins eating solid foods, it is common for parents to start worrying about food allergies. For some children, food allergies can be serious—even life-threatening. Nivedita More, MD, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health, is here to help dispel some of the myths about food allergies and give parents some ways they can help prevent food allergies in young children.




 

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, about 8% of children have a food allergy. Of those, about 40% have had a severe reaction. “A food allergy happens when the body reacts to a particular protein, usually shortly after a food is eaten or ingested,” explained Dr. More.

Dr. More suggests that families get the facts about food allergies from a reliable source. “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around food allergies,” she said. While it is tempting to do an internet search, your family’s pediatrician can help you find the best information.

Although the thought of a serious food allergy seems scary, there are some things that parents can do to help prevent a food allergy in their child.

According to Dr. More, the number one thing is to breastfeed the infant. “Studies show that if the babies are exclusively breastfed for the first four to six months, their chances of food allergies are much less than when they’re formula-fed.”

Even if feeding only breast milk to your baby is not an option, partial breastfeeding, or pumped or donated breast milk, can still benefit your child.

Dr. More also encourages pregnant and nursing parents to eat a varied diet. Don’t worry about restricting your diet or avoiding potentially allergenic foods like tree nuts, legumes (peanuts, soy), eggs, and cow’s milk. In fact, including those foods can actually have a protective effect and help prevent the allergies in the future.

Exposing your child to common food allergens early on is not as scary as it sounds, assures Dr. More. “A study showed early introduction of peanuts in Israel was actually preventing peanut allergies in the country.

“We’re seeing a huge difference in the number of allergies because of early introduction of all of these allergenic foods—mainly egg, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish,” she added. These six allergens are responsible for 90% of food allergies.

Once your baby has started eating less-allergenic foods, like grains, fruits, and vegetables, Stanford Children’s Health recommends that parents start introducing potential allergens between four and six months. “Delaying the introduction may actually increase the baby’s risk of developing allergies,” Dr. More shared.

For children who already have a peanut allergy, Dr. More wants parents to know that while they do need to remain cautious about peanut exposure, tree nuts are not necessarily off-limits. “A common myth is that peanut-allergic children are also allergic to other nuts. That may or may not be true,” as Dr. More explains. “Peanuts are a ground nut or legume, whereas other nuts are from the tree nut family. If a child is allergic to peanuts, they’re not automatically allergic to almonds or cashews. This is a huge misconception.”

Another key point is knowing the difference between the various ways children can react to foods. Food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities are all unique, and each one requires different treatment.

Dr. More provided a brief outline of the differences:

Allergy

  • Caused by specific reactions to a protein.
    • Symptoms range from mild to life-threatening.
    • Common symptoms include skin or stomach problems or swelling.
    • Serious symptoms include loss of consciousness or anaphylaxis (difficulty breathing, skin rash, nausea, vomiting, and shock).

Food sensitivity

  • Causes trouble digesting certain food proteins, like wheat.
    • Common symptoms include stomach issues and bloating.

Food intolerance

  • Caused when the body is not making enough of an enzyme needed to digest a food, as with lactose intolerance.

Parents should also keep in mind that many things can cause symptoms that resemble a food allergy. If your child has a reaction to something, Dr. More recommends consulting with your pediatrician or a medical expert first. They can run the tests needed to confirm an allergy and help you make a plan for managing it, if needed.  

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