Food allergies are on the rise in children. Two common themes of parenthood are profound love and profound worry. They exist in us with equal potency. And ohhh, the list of things we mamas worry about is endless. Is my baby hitting milestones on time, are they sleeping enough, why are they sick? You can add to the list: Are they showing food allergy symptoms? Is that a food allergy rash? Is a food allergy developing?
Food Allergies in Children
As a pediatrician, I’ve dedicated my career to supporting children and families and working on new solutions in prevention (car seats, good sleep, vaccines, smart eating) and most recently I’m dedicating the majority of my time helping families understand the food allergy prevention space. Here’s why: the prevalence of food allergies has increased dramatically in the last few decades, doubling for some foods and even tripling for others.
Today nearly six million children (two children in every classroom) in the U.S. have a food allergy. And the thing is, anyone can develop a food allergy, even without a family history. Genetics alone isn’t the only factor, in fact, two out of every three children who develop a food allergy do not have a parent with one.
What You Can Do to Prevent Food Allergies
The good news is that there is something you can do about it. Science, data, and groundbreaking research has shown that with early introduction and routine feeding of diverse foods, you can help lower a baby’s risk of developing a food allergy. Amazing when there is something actionable for parents to put into practice!
Two landmark studies – the LEAP and EAT trials – found that an infant’s risk of developing a food allergy dropped significantly when they were introduced to a potentially allergenic food early and often. Getting foods, even common allergens, in early (when babies start solid foods) and continuing as they grow up really does help.
Further research found that introducing young infants to multiple allergens at once was safe (babies as young as 3 months of age were eating 6 different potential allergens a few times a week). Research also uncovered it was hard for parents to get diverse diets into their infants regularly. Helping parents introduce food around 4 months of age ideally with ongoing breastfeeding, is one way to increase an infant’s exposure and tolerance to foods.
In response to these studies – and the growing problem of food allergies in children – the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its guidance to pediatricians to urge introduction of peanuts at an early age. And both the FDA and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) support introducing peanuts to an infant’s diet early to prevent a food allergy.
Risk Factors for Developing a Food Allergy
There are a few risk factors to note for food allergy development. If your child has risk factors for developing a food allergy, consult with your primary care doctor about ways to reduce risk.
- Age: Young children are more likely to develop food allergies than older children or adults (though allergies can start at any age).
- Family history: Having a parent or sibling with a food allergy increases your risk.
- Having another food allergy: People with food allergies tend to have more than one. In fact, only 7% of all children and adults with food allergies are solely allergic to peanut, for example.
- Skin: How babies are introduced to foods matters. Children with broken-down skin can be introduced to foods through the skin (and we don’t want them to be). Having a related medical condition like eczema, dramatically increases the risk of developing a food allergy.
So go ahead mamas, get your babies eating diverse foods early and often. In my next piece, I’ll highlight current guidelines and recommendations for food introduction: when to start, what foods to start with, and how to stay consistent.
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Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician, mom to two boys, and the Chief Medical Officer at SpoonfulOne. SpoonfulOne is a line of nutritional products designed to help stop a food allergy before it starts.*