About four in 100 children have a food allergy, and in many cases that food allergy begins in infancy. Like older children and adults, babies with food allergies have an immune system that reacts to certain food proteins as though they were a harmful invader. Whenever a food allergen is present in the body, the immune system overreacts by producing antibodies called IgE that release histamines and other chemicals to fight off the “invader.” The resulting allergic reaction can be mild to severe and even life-threatening.
Babies can be allergic to any of the top eight food allergens (egg, dairy, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish), but are most likely to be sensitive to cow’s milk, eggs and wheat. Remember, it takes the body a while to produce antibodies against an allergen, so your baby could be allergic to a food that he or she had eaten once or twice before without any problem.
Allergy Symptoms in Babies
Unlike older children, infants are unable to articulate how they’re feeling, so they can’t explain that their throat feels tight or that their mouth feels itchy. It is therefore up to parents to identify any symptoms of an allergic reaction. Most allergy symptoms appear within minutes of exposure, but gastrointestinal symptoms can take up to a couple of hours to appear. Symptoms to watch out for include:
- Swollen lips or tongue
- Runny eyes and nose
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe vomiting
What to Avoid
Like older children, babies with food allergies can only be treated by avoiding all trigger foods, including those that may have come in contact with the allergen. Depending on the allergy, this could mean withholding many popular baby foods. Babies with an allergy to wheat, for example, must avoid cream of wheat and many other cereals, while babies with an allergy to dairy must avoid drinking milk or eating most baked goods. Babies with severe allergies in particular may be sensitive to their mother’s breast milk, requiring a change in mom’s diet or a switch to a special hypoallergenic formula. For formula-fed babies allergic to dairy, soy-based formulas are available.
Preventing or Delaying Food Allergies
With food allergies on the rise, researchers have been searching everywhere for a strategy to prevent food allergies in children. But food allergies are a complex condition that likely arise from a number of factors. The only strategy that seems to consistently reduce the risk—though it’s no guaranteed prevention—is breastfeeding for at least six months.
From 2000 to 2008, doctors recommended that parents hold off on introducing their babies to the eight most common food allergens, believing it would help prevent food allergies. Recent research, however, indicates that the opposite is true, and now doctors have reversed their position, stating that there is no need for most families to withhold potential allergens from their babies and toddlers over the age of six months. For families with a history of food allergies, it is still best to talk to your doctor before introducing potential allergens.
Food allergies in babies and children are very scary, but keep in mind that they are still rare. More often than not, a food allergy scare turns out to be something else. If, however, you see any symptoms of an allergic reaction to food in your infant, such as face swelling, difficulty breathing and severe vomiting, call 911 right away. Babies with the more common food allergies, such as wheat and dairy, usually outgrow their condition by the time they reach school age. If your infant is diagnosed with a food allergy, enlist the help of local and online food allergy communities. You’ll find that you are far from alone, and that it’s possible for your baby to grow up to lead a healthy and full life.