Young children, especially those under the age of four, are especially vulnerable to developing food allergy. In fact, as many as 5-8% of children under the age of three may have a food allergy. Some of the usual causes of allergies in children and babies include milk, eggs (especially egg whites), soy, wheat, groundnuts and tree nuts (ie walnuts, cashewnuts), fish and shellfish. Parents need to keep in mind, be aware and keep a close watch for symptoms when starting with complementary feeding as each new food is introduced to the child.
Symptoms that arise from a food allergy are unpleasant and can occur within minutes to two hours after eating or exposure (touch or smell). These may include rashes, wheezing, lip and tongue swelling, sneezing, vomiting and abdominal pain. In worst cases, an anaphylactic attack may occur and can potentially cause death.
The Food Principle
Whether you opt to buy commercially prepared baby food or cook at home, the principle is variety. A good variety of food, the majority of which should still be fresh and home cooked, ensure that your baby gets all the necessary nutrients, vitamins and minerals he needs to grow and develop.
What are Your Child’s Risks?
The tendency of developing allergies is often inherited, but the type of reaction may vary.
- If BOTH parents have had allergy problems: 40-60%
- If ONE parent have had allergy problems: 20-40%
- If NEITHER parents have had allergy problems: 5-15%
Minimising the Risks
An allergy is caused by an allergen, which can be inhaled, injected, eaten or touched. This triggers the immune system into releasing antibodies known as immunoglobin E, which plays an important role an adverse food reaction due to an immunological mechanism. There are certain precautions that you can take to reduce the risk of your children developing allergies in the early stages of their lives.
- Exclusive breastfeeding for six months. Exclusively breastfeeding your baby until he is six months old will significantly reduce the risk of atopic dermatitis and milk allergy during the first two years of his life. The exact mechanism of the protective effect of breast milk towards allergy is complex and may involve a tendency of the baby’s immune system profile to be non-allergic, for example the formation of immunoglobulin IgG4, rather than IgE.
- Use of hypoallergenic formulas when not breastfeeding. Hypoallergenic formulas consist of milk proteins that have been broken down into smaller proteins. Studies have revealed that these formulas may prevent the development of allergies, especially in children with a high risk of developing allergic diseases.
- Delayed introduction of solid foods. Complementary feeding should start only when baby is six months old, not before or after. At 6 months, babies’ immune system is becoming more tolerant towards food allergens and his digestive system will be able to digest the food. However, bear in mind that you should not delay the introduction of complementary food to later than six months of age for nutritional reasons.
- Introduce new foods one at a time. One new food each week will enable you to trace the type of food to which your child may have a reaction to. Start with the least allergenic food like rice cereals. Highly allergenic foods such as nuts, shellfish and eggs can be introduced after your child turns one year old.
Managing Allergies – Now and Beyond
If you suspect your child of having a food allergy, keep a record of the food he eats and the reactions that may arise from them. It is crucial to diagnose accurately what food allergies your child may have in order to prevent an unnecessarily restricted diet. Do consult your doctor before taking any steps in treating your child.
As children get older and their immune system develops, it is possible that your child may outgrow the allergies that he once had towards certain foods. You may try again with certain foods at a later age, but keep in mind that in some cases, the allergy can last a lifetime.