Preventing Food Allergies In Babies: Is It Possible?
The biggest wish during pregnancy is that your baby is healthy.
While your baby may be born healthy, you may later learn that she has a food allergy. While some allergies are mild and don’t affect her quality of life, others can be life-threatening.
About 15 million Americans have food allergies, including about 6 million children, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). That’s about 1 in 13 children who will develop a food allergy.
While there needs to be more research on how to prevent allergies, there are some things you can consider to lower your baby’s risk.
In this post, we’ll explain what food allergies are, how they affect people and how you may be able to prevent them.
What are Food Allergies?
When your immune system wrongly thinks a protein (or allergen) is harmful, you develop an allergy. When you have an allergy, you have some type of allergic reaction when you consume—or sometimes touch or smell—that food.
Allergic reactions can be minor or severe, sometimes causing death. Allergic reactions may look like:
- Redness or paleness
- Runny nose
- Throat closing up (difficulty breathing or swallowing)
- Feeling faint or passing out
Anaphylaxis is a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. The blood pressure drops and the airways are restricted, making it difficult to breathe. It can happen within seconds or minutes of being exposed to the allergen. The most common foods to be anaphylactic to are peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. People with allergies this severe usually carry around an EpiPen, which can be used to inject epinephrine if a reaction occurs. Immediately after it’s injected, the person will need to go to an emergency room.
The most common food allergies include:
- Tree nuts
- Milk products
Although clinical trials are researching food allergy therapies, there’s currently no cure for them. If an allergy isn’t outgrown, a person must stay away from the allergen and learn to recognize and treat any reactions.
Food Allergies and Children
Most food allergies are discovered in childhood.
Although anyone can develop food allergies, babies are more likely to have one if an immediate family member has an allergy, asthma or eczema or if the baby herself has severe eczema.
About 50% more children have developed food allergies between 1997 and 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). The prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergies specifically has increased even more. Between 1997 and 2003, the allergies have more than tripled in children. Between the late 1990’s and the mid-2000’s, the children hospitalized from food reactions has also tripled.
Other than the health risks allergies pose, they may cause additional problems. According to FARE, caring for U.S. children with food allergies costs families about $25 billion a year. Unfortunately, children with these allergies are twice as likely to be bullied. In fact, about 1 in 3 children are bullied about their food allergies.
Luckily, some allergies can be outgrown. However, some allergies, such as those to nuts and shellfish, tend to be lifelong.
Given the increase in allergies and its threat to children, you’re probably wondering if there’s anything you can do to prevent them.
Preventing Food Allergies in Babies
There is no way to completely prevent your bun in the oven from having food allergies. However, there are a few things you can do to lower the risk.
Research is divided on how breastfeeding affects allergy development, but if you want to be on the safe side, plan to breastfeed as long as possible.
One 2017 study showed that breast milk may provide protection against food allergies. Pregnant mice that ate allergenic foods gave protective antibodies to their babies through breast milk. These antibodies allowed the babies to produce Treg cells, which allow them to tolerate foods.
That being said, other research shows that breastfeeding may not prevent allergies.
However, even if it doesn’t prevent allergies, there are numerous other benefits of breastfeeding. Try to breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months. After this, you can start to supplement breast milk with solid food. You can breastfeed for up to 2 years for additional benefits.
For more information on breastfeeding, read:
- Everything You Need to Know About Breastfeeding: For Complete Beginners
- Breastfeeding vs Formula: Which is Better?
Should I Avoid Allergenic Foods While Pregnant or Breastfeeding?
Some pregnant women think they should avoid foods that people commonly have allergies to, such as peanuts. However, most researchers agree that you don’t need to avoid specific allergenic foods while pregnant or breastfeeding. In fact, avoiding foods pose a health risk since allergenic foods tend to be high in the nutrients you need.
Interesting, a 2017 study concludes that eating allergenic foods during pregnancy may actually protect the baby from developing allergies. The researchers found that mice who were exposed to egg protein produced milk that protected their babies from allergies. The risk for babies was the lowest when the mice were exposed to it both during pregnancy and during breastfeeding. Since this study was conducted on mice, it’s still unclear whether the same is true for humans.
While there’s no conclusive evidence, most doctors will say that you can eat according to your preferences without avoiding anything.
As we mentioned, if a baby has severe eczema, they have a higher chance of developing a food allergy. Many babies have eczema, but severe eczema is characterized as very dry, itchy, and oozing or crusted skin.
If your baby has even mild eczema after she’s born, try to keep the inflammation down. This can include using moisturizers, a warm bath and avoiding irritants, such as scented soaps. If eczema gets worse, see your pediatrician or a dermatologist.
Should I Avoid Allergenic Foods When I Introduce Solid Foods?
Some parents may want to avoid giving their baby allergenic foods, but there’s no reason to restrict them unless you already know they’re allergic.
In fact, frequently feeding peanut foods early on to babies dramatically decreases their risk of developing an allergy to it, according to FARE.
One 2008 survey found that children who were exposed to peanuts later on in life and less frequently had a 10-fold higher prevalence of peanut allergies.
A recent LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut allergy) study investigated the effect of introducing peanuts early on to babies who were high risk for peanut allergy. Researchers found that introducing peanuts between 4-11 months helped prevent allergies from developing. From this study, they developed these guidelines:
- Introduce peanuts as early as 4-6 months for babies at high-risk (such as severe eczema or an egg allergy). You should consult your doctor before doing this to see if medical supervision is recommended.
- Introduce peanuts around 6 months if a baby had mild to moderate eczema.
- If a baby isn’t at risk for food allergies, introduce the food as you would any food, according to your routines and food preferences.
Similarly, other studies have shown that introducing eggs earlier may reduce the risk of egg allergies.
When you first introduce peanuts, you may wish to mix peanut butter with warm water and stir it into baby cereal or applesauce. A mashed hard-boil egg is also good for introducing egg protein. Starting around 6 months, you can feed your baby soft milk products, such as yogurt and cheese.
When you introduce your baby to any food, be sure to monitor her for any of the allergic reaction symptoms we listed above. Make sure you can be with her for at least 2 hours to keep an eye on her. To build your baby’s tolerance, you may wish to frequently feed her that food once you know it’s okay.
While introducing foods early may help, some babies develop allergies early on, even before you have a chance to introduce solid food.
Talk to Your Doctor
While we’ve provided general recommendations and tips, your doctor will be able to assess your baby’s risk for allergies. If your baby is high-risk, ask your doctor if you should first introduce allergenic foods at home or with medical supervision.
If you think the food is causing a minor allergic reaction or irritation, stop serving the food to your baby and talk to your doctor about the next steps.
Severe symptoms such as swelling of the mouth or throat, hives, difficulty breathing or paleness require medical attention. In this case, always call 911.
Do you have food allergies? If so, comment below if you’re doing anything to decrease your baby’s risk. If you have any pregnant friends or family, be sure to share this post with them, too!
P.S. Have you tried our fetal dopplers? These handheld devices allow you to listen to your baby’s heartbeat while she’s still inside the womb—similar to an ultrasound. Hear how a fetal heartbeat monitor has made our customers’ pregnancies easier. Already convinced but not sure which one to choose? Check out the differences between models here.