Food allergies in children can develop younger than you might think—with some babies showing signs of vulnerability in their first few months.
Unfortunately, if your little one has a bad reaction to food, they’re up to four times more likely to suffer from other allergies later in life, such as asthma and eczema.
But with early preventative measures, it’s possible to stop food allergies before they begin and build your child’s immune tolerance to help them lead healthier lives.
What’s a Food Allergy?
A food allergy happens when the body’s immune system wrongly identifies certain foods or proteins as harmful substances—either after ingestion, inhalation or skin contact.
In infants this most commonly manifests as atopic dermatitis, an inflammatory skin disease also known as eczema, although scientists are still investigating how it’s linked to food allergies.
More severe food reactions include diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory difficulties, although these are rarer.
What Causes Food Allergies?
The likelihood of your baby developing a food allergy is believed to be part environmental and part genetic.
Many studies have confirmed the role of the environment (such as exposure to foods), but researchers have discovered that certain people are more genetically vulnerable to allergic diseases than others.
Specialist in pediatric respiratory medicine, Dr. Alfred Tam, explains: “The most important element of an allergic disease is genetic predisposition, which means you have to have some sort of gene effect in the body.
“Everybody is exposed to cows’ milk, air pollution or dust mites, but not everybody has diseases—there has to be an interaction between the gene and the environment.”
A new study from the University of British Columbia in Canada recently linked a specific gene to an allergy to peanuts—which is the first exciting step to identifying new treatments.
What Are the Most Common Allergies?
The protein in cows’ or goats’ milk is one of the first allergens infants encounter in the few months after birth, either through exposure to baby formula or through the mother’s ingestion of dairy while breastfeeding.
Other common allergens that aren’t introduced until the solids stage include shellfish, egg and peanuts.
Women who consume milk, peanuts and wheat in pregnancy reduce the risk of their baby developing associated allergies in mid-childhood.
How to Prevent Allergies:
This reduces the baby’s exposure to the potential milk protein allergen found in formula until their immune system is more mature.
If possible, continue to give breast milk as you first introduce foods and other common allergens, Dr. Tam, advises.
“When the baby is starting to have solids, the intake of breast milk helps the body to accept different kinds of allergens better,” he explains.
“We’re not really sure why, but those who are being breastfed develop fewer food allergies.”
Persist with allergens
If a formula-fed baby displays a mild allergy to cows’ milk protein, don’t give up on it, suggests Dr. Tam.
“The infant intestine must learn to adapt to different kinds of foreign protein in the first year of life,” he says.
“The only absolute recommendation for avoidance would be if there’s a severe immediate reaction or if the allergic disease is difficult to manage.”
Introduce allergens early
The earlier you introduce allergens, the greater the chances of your baby’s body accepting them.
Previous thinking had suggested waiting past the first year, but now doctors advise to begin introduction when your infant is ready for solids: between four and six months.
The window for the body tolerating new different proteins is up to two years of age.
“Studies have shown that babies who eat these things late have more allergies than those who take it earlier,” Dr. Tam adds.
Introducing peanuts to high-risk infants within the first 12 months lowers their chances of developing the nut allergy compared to waiting until the age of five, a LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut) study discovered.
Encourage a healthy diet
An infant diet that’s made up of a high amount of fruit, vegetables and home-cooked foods is less likely to develop a food allergy by the age of two, a study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found.
It can be quite scary when your baby displays an allergic reaction. Hopefully these tips can help minimize the risk, however please do consult a doctor for further information and support in allergy management.