Five to 8 percent of children under age 3 have food allergies, according to experts’ estimates. (Some prefer the term food sensitivity or intolerance, reserving the word allergy for the most severe reaction—anaphylaxis—a life-threatening emergency.) Although you may not be able to entirely prevent your baby from developing a food sensitivity, there are steps you can take to try to keep this from happening.
The verdict is still out on whether your diet during pregnancy can affect your baby’s tendency toward food sensitivities or allergies. “The fairest answer is that we don’t really know for sure,” says Scott H. Sicherer, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Even so, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers at high risk of having an infant with food allergies—women with a family history—consider avoiding peanuts, one of the most highly allergenic of all foods, during the third trimester.
“A number of studies indicate that breastfeeding is generally protective against allergies,” Sicherer says. So, nursing your baby for at least a year definitely gives him the best chance of not developing food allergies. However, the AAP suggests that breastfeeding moms who have allergies avoid eating peanuts, nuts from trees and, possibly, seafood, eggs, milk, wheat and soy. If you are eliminating a variety of foods from your diet for this reason, talk with your doctor about taking supplements to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need.
One of the most protective steps you can take is to wait to begin feeding your baby solids until he is 6 months old. Then, start with lighter-colored puréed fruit and vegetables (they are more easily digested and have a milder taste). Introduce one food at a time, waiting three to four days in between each to see how your baby tolerates it. The AAP also recommends not feeding your baby cow’s milk until he is a year old, eggs until age 2 and peanuts, nuts and seafood until age 3.
Symptoms to look for
Common symptoms of food allergies include itchy rashes (called atopic dermatitis) and hives, according to Sicherer. The intestines can be affected, causing reactions such as vomiting and diarrhea, and babies also can have asthma or hay feverlike symptoms. “If your baby is having any chronic symptoms, discuss with your doctor whether allergies could be playing a role,” he says. If your child does have an allergy, remember that there are lots of foods to choose from, and the best “treatment” is to eliminate the offending fare from his diet as soon as you notice any evidence of allergies. — Mary Jane Horton