Food allergies – it’s a minefield. With around 5-7% of infants suffering from a food allergy (and it’s one the rise), more parents than ever want to know the best way to prevent their baby developing one. Part of the problem (but also part of the solution) is that our understanding of allergies is constantly evolving, and the media love a sensationalist headline. Take peanuts – until 2009 many women were advised not to eat them whilst pregnant and breastfeeding, then then the researchers realised it might actually help prevent an allergy if they are eaten. No wonder parents are confused!
Will my baby have an allergy?
Babies are more at risk of developing an allergy if they have already been diagnosed with eczema (the younger they were the more risk) or they have a family history of conditions like asthma, hay fever and food allergy. But this only increases risk – it doesn’t mean they will develop an allergy or that they won’t outgrow any that develop.
What is an allergy?
Allergies can be immediate (IgE-mediated) or delayed (non-IgE mediated). Severe IgE allergies can lead to anaphylaxis – a potentially life-threatening reaction. Non-IgE allergies develop over the course of hours or weeks and are not immediately dangerous.
What are the symptoms?
With an IgE reaction symptoms can involve the skin, gut, respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Your baby might experience redness and itching which then leads to a bumpy rash known as hives. Swelling of face, lips, eyes and other parts of the body might also happen and your baby might vomit. Very serious reactions tend to affect breathing and blood pressure. A non-IgE reaction is more difficult to identify because it’s delayed by 1 to 3 days. But symptoms can include eczema, vomiting, reflux, tummy pain, constipation, diarrhoea, bloody or mucus filled poo and poor growth. Some of these symptoms develop over a period of time too. Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome (FPIES) is a serious type of delayed allergy causing vomiting and bloody poo.
What should I do to prevent an allergy?
It’s important that you introduce all allergens as soon as possible after 6 months but do it slowly and only on days when your baby is well. If your baby is at an increased risk of developing an allergy it’s important to introduce new foods, particularly the higher risk foods (there are 14 listed by the EU), at least 3 days apart to see if any symptoms develop. It’s also important to continue to give these foods regularly. If you’re breastfeeding continue during weaning as your amazing antibodies will help with your baby’s tolerance of new foods.If your baby has already been diagnosed with an allergy before weaning begins then you should consult with your child’s allergist or paediatrician before you begin.
What about tests?
At present there is no reliable test for non-IgE allergies (although you might see people claiming to be able to help identify allergies using all sorts of different methods). The gold standard of testing in these cases is a food exclusion for around 6 weeks followed by a reintroduction. IgE allergies can be confirmed with a skin prick test and/or a blood test – sometimes both are needed. However, allergy tests are not 100% accurate and so you need a professional to interpret them alongside other symptoms to get an accurate picture.So, if you’re about to start weaning and are worried about reaction remember it’s much better to introduce potential allergens sooner rather than later – which I know flies in the face of instinct! For reassurance if you are worried always introduce potential allergens in the middle of the day when help is accessible and keep a bottle of antihistamine in the cupboard (only for use on the advice of a medical professional). And whilst food allergies are on the rise, still around 95-97% of children will be allergy free. And many will also outgrow their allergies (mainly egg and cow’s milk).