Preventing Infant Allergies

When you were a child, how many kids did you know with food allergies? How many do you know now? Without even knowing the statistics, everyone can tell food allergies are on the rise and that’s why the lessons from last month’s Food Allergy Action Month are more important than ever. Here are the facts:

  • According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, food allergies (a serious medical condition) affect up to 15 million people in the United States, including 1 in 13 children.

  • A study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that between 1997 and 2011, food allergies among children increased by approximately 50%. Unfortunately, the cause for this increase still remains unclear.

So, what is a food allergy and is it the same as an intolerance or a food sensitivity?  Food allergies and intolerances are different. In very basic terms, the job of the body’s immune system is to find and attack germs (like bacteria and viruses) that make you sick. A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly targets a harmless food protein as a threat and attacks it. Unlike other types of intolerances and sensitivities, food allergies involve the immune system and when the offending food is ingested causes a series of reactions involving antibodies and other chemicals that ultimately trigger the allergic response.

With food sensitivities and intolerances, the immune system is not involved. Some of the symptoms may be similar; however, the process in the body is very different.  Food allergies can be life threatening (a condition known as anaphylaxis) — sensitivities and intolerances are not. Eight foods account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish.  It doesn’t take a big bite of something, even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction.

How Do You Prevent Infant Allergies?

What can you do to prevent allergies in infants and children? Research suggests that there are two things that have been found to help:

1. Do your best to breastfeed: Many studies discuss the protective role that breastfeeding plays in the development of allergic disease. Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life has been shown to significantly lessen the risk and severity of food allergies in families with a strong history of them. In general, breast milk does not typically cause allergic reactions in breastfeeding infants. But mothers sometimes worry that their babies may be allergic to something that they are eating and passing through their breast milk. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics,

“Only two or three out of every one hundred babies who are exclusively breastfed demonstrate an allergic reaction—and that’s most often to the cow’s milk in their mother’s diet. In this case, the infant may show signs of severe colic, abdominal discomfort, or a skin rash such as eczema or hives, or may react with vomiting, severe diarrhea (often with blood in their stool), or difficulty breathing that lasts up to several hours after breastfeeding.”

2.  Don’t delay solids: What about when your baby is ready to eat solids?  Your baby is typically developmentally ready to begin solids between 4-6 months of age. For decades, the medical community advised parents to delay introducing allergenic foods until 12 months (cow’s milk dairy), 24 months (eggs), and even 36 months of age (fish, tree nuts, peanuts). Then, in 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics retracted its previous guidelines, acknowledging that “there was insufficient evidence to support delayed introduction of allergens as a strategy to reduce the risk of food allergy.”

The newest guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that there is NO benefit in delaying the introduction of highly allergenic foods in infants. So how do you do it? In a nutshell (pun intended): If you can, make foods yourself (babies like them better, they are so tasty!). Start with something soft and in season (think avocado, sweet potato, melon) and don’t be afraid to offer foods that were previously off limits (nuts, fish, eggs, etc.) as long as you remember to keep the food form and size in mind — no choking hazards! And consider adding Dr. Greene’s Feeding Baby Green to your trusted book collection because it’s an excellent resource for creating healthy, nutritious meals that prevent childhood disease.

Even though there may be no real “cure” for food allergies, you can make daily adjustments to significantly help! Avoidance of food allergens and early recognition and management of allergic reactions to food are important measures to prevent serious health consequences. Breastfeed if you are able and for as long as you and your baby mutually desire. Education is power — consult with your child’s doctor and start to learn the simple signs of an allergic sensitivities and you will be able to feed your baby safely (and happily) with ease.

Be Well, Be NutritionWise!

– Nicole Meadow, MPN, RD, CSP, CLC

This post is solely for informational purposes. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for medical advice. Before undertaking any course of treatment or dietary/health changes, you should seek the advice of your physician or other health care provider.

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