Food allergies in babies
Signs, symptoms and sensible advice
Food allergies aren’t common but, if present, can result in serious symptoms and can affect your baby’s nutritional intake1. Learn about the signs to look for, which foods are most likely to trigger a reaction, how and when to introduce allergenic foods safely, and why breastfeeding may help to reduce your baby’s risk of developing allergies.
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Infant food allergies
Food allergies involve an overreaction of the immune system. They may be immediate, triggering obvious symptoms as soon as the food is eaten, or they may be delayed, causing longer-term or recurring symptoms such as eczema and digestive issues1.
Food allergies are more common in babies than adults, affecting approximately 6–8% of children during early childhood2. Reassuringly, many children outgrow their allergies later on.
Identifying a food allergy
As you introduce solids, you’ll no doubt notice which foods your baby likes and dislikes. However, a more important reaction to look for is any sign of a food allergy. With only around 1 in 17 children suffering from a food allergy, the vast majority will never exhibit any of these symptoms.
The most common symptoms of an immediate food allergy are:
- Swelling of the eyes and lips
- Diarrhoea or vomiting
- Wheezing, a runny nose, red eyes and sneezing
- Itching, hives and eczema
Allergy symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe. And while some people seem to experience the same level of allergy symptoms each time they have an allergic reaction, there is no guarantee that a mild reaction on one occasion won’t lead to a more serious reaction on another occasion. This is why it’s so important that allergy in children should be diagnosed, treated and managed.
Severe wheezing and difficulty breathing can be signs of anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical assistance. Fortunately, this kind of serious allergic reaction is rare. For more information on anaphylaxis, visit anaphylaxis.org.uk.
Foods that cause allergies
The following foods are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than others:
- Wheat-based foods and other foods containing gluten
- Fish and shellfish
Introducing new foods safely
When you first start the weaning process, it’s best to begin with foods that are unlikely to be allergenic, such as rice, apple, pear, and quinoa. Then you can try introducing the more allergenic foods one by one, ideally in conjunction with breastfeeding3.
Introducing potentially problematic foods gradually allows you to monitor your baby’s reaction and spot any issues.
The family connection
If you’re currently pregnant and suffer from allergies, you may be concerned about your baby having them too. A family history of an allergy is the biggest risk factor for your baby, with up to 70% of babies whose parents (one or both) have an allergy inheriting the same issue, but not necessarily the same allergy. Therefore, it’s worth having an understanding of other food allergies, such as cows’ milk allergy, should they go on to develop any.
If there are no allergies in your family, the risk is much smaller, with only 10% of babies developing a new allergy4.
Introducing allergenic foods
If you have a history of allergies in your family and are concerned that your baby might develop a food allergy, pay special attention to your baby’s wellbeing and behaviour after introducing an allergenic food. These foods should never be introduced before 6 months. And if you are breastfeeding, continue to breastfeed throughout the weaning process to help to reduce the risk of allergy.
Start with just a small amount and allow several days before introducing another food of any kind. If your baby has a reaction, you’ll be able to easily identify which food triggered the symptoms. Call your doctor if you ever suspect an allergy: they will be able to diagnose your child and offer support and advice on how to manage the condition.
If your baby has already been diagnosed with a food allergy, eczema or another allergy, then they have an increased risk of developing peanut allergy. They are also at higher risk if there is a history of any allergies in their immediate family, including you, your partner, and any brothers or sisters.
In this case, you should talk to your GP, health visitor or medical allergy specialist before you give any food containing peanuts to your baby for the first time.
If your baby and their immediate family have no history of allergies, you can choose to give them peanuts or foods containing peanuts after they are six months old. Smooth peanut butter is often one of the first nut-based foods given to babies. You should never give whole peanuts or nuts to children under five, as they can be a choking risk.
When you give your baby peanuts for the first time, pay close attention and look out for any allergy symptoms. If you think your child is having an allergic reaction to peanuts, seek urgent medical advice.
Keeping your baby healthy
It can take time to learn about the ins and outs of an allergy, and which foods your child can and can’t eat. While you’re becoming familiar with it, be sure to read ingredient labels, even in foods that you might not expect to contain the allergen you need to avoid.
“Food labelling laws make it easier to spot allergens in your baby's foods.”
Depending on the food that triggers your child’s allergy, avoiding it may put them at risk of missing out on key nutrients. It is a good idea to seek support from a dietitian to ensure that your baby gets the full range of nourishment they need for healthy growth and development1.
The role of breast milk in reducing the risk of allergies
Experts agree that breastfeeding helps to protect infants against developing allergies. It does this by supporting their immature immune system as breast milk is rich in antibodies which offer the baby protection in the early months of life.
Breastfeeding or feeding expressed breast milk from a bottle for at least the first 6 months of your baby’s life may reduce their risk of developing allergies.
1. Allergy UK. Food allergy in babies and children [Online]. 2013. Available at: www.allergyuk.org/childhood-food-allergy/food-allergy-in-babies-and-children [Accessed April 2014]
2. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). Food allergy in children and young people [Online]. 2011. Available at: http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg116/evidence/full-guideline-136470061 [Accessed Janaury 2016]
3. Allergy UK. Weaning your baby onto solids [Online]. 2014. Available at: www.allergyuk.org/advice-for-parents-with-a-new-baby/weaning-your-baby-on-to-solids [Accessed July 2014]
4. US National Library of Medicine. Fact sheet: Preventing allergies in babies and small children [Online]. 2012. Available at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0004990/ [Accessed July 2014]
Last reviewed: 12th August 2014
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