How to Prevent Food Allergies
Since living with a food allergy can be tough, doctors have tried to help reduce the risk for babies who have a family history of allergies. Until recently, the AAP had recommended delaying the introduction of eggs until age 2, and peanuts, tree nuts, and fish until age 3, and had also advised that pregnant and nursing moms avoid eating peanuts.
However, even though families have been taking these precautions, the rates of food allergies have continued to rise -- and some studies have suggested that restricting these foods might actually be contributing to the problem, says Dr. Sampson. When the AAP recently reviewed all the studies that have been done, it decided that there just wasn't enough evidence to back up its previous advice. The new report suggests waiting at least four to six months before introducing solid foods but no longer advises waiting years to give children allergens like eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts. (If your child has already been diagnosed with one food allergy, however, her doctor may advise avoiding additional foods.) The new report also says there's insufficient proof that avoiding peanuts during pregnancy or breastfeeding is protective either. "However, I certainly wouldn't discourage mothers from avoiding peanuts during pregnancy or breastfeeding if they have a strong family history of food allergies," says Dr. Sampson. Here are some other steps that doctors say may in fact help reduce a child's risk.
- Breastfeed. Nursing exclusively for at least four months is believed to strengthen a baby's immune system, and studies have found that it reduces the risk of eczema, cow's-milk allergy, and wheezing at a young age.
- Consider formula options. If you have a family history of allergies and are not breastfeeding exclusively, using a hydrolyzed formula such as Alimentum, Nutramigen, or Good Start, which has added enzymes that change the milk proteins, may reduce the risk of eczema and food allergies. Soy formula has not been found to prevent allergies.
- Don't start solids too soon. Wait until your baby is 4 to 6 months old before you introduce any solid foods, including cereal. After that, you don't need to avoid any foods (other than cow's milk and honey until 12 months, as well as choking hazards).
- Make playdates. Being around other kids -- and their germs -- may help fine-tune your child's immune system and protect against all kinds of allergies, says Dr. Burks.
- Be cautious with lotions and ointments. Avoid using ones containing milk, almond oil, or peanut oil (often listed as arachis oil) on your baby, because they may trigger an allergic reaction.
If your child does develop a food allergy, it's helpful to remember that only a tiny fraction of kids actually have life-threatening reactions. "A food allergy doesn't have to restrict a child much more than having to wear eyeglasses does," says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of FAAN. "Children with food allergies can do everything other children can do, except eat that food."