If you’re one of the millions of parents who have a child with food allergies, and you’re thinking about having another baby, you’re probably wondering, “Is there anything I can do to prevent allergies in my new baby?”
The answer: yes and no.
We cannot currently predict which children will develop a food allergy and which will not. However, experts believe that those children with a strong family history of food allergy, allergy to pollen, mold or other elements, asthma, and atopic dermatitis are at higher risk for developing a food allergy. These children have a genetic or inherited tendency to acquire a food allergy.
We also know that certain dietary actions can enhance the risk of food allergy development while others can protect from it. Here are some examples.
The pregnancy diet
Avoiding food allergens, such as peanuts, while you are pregnant may seem like a smart thing to do, but research doesn’t support it. In fact, it has found the opposite: there may be a protective effect. A 2012 study of pregnant women who ate peanuts and tree nuts showed their babies had a lower incidence of asthma and allergy. Eating peanuts and tree nuts during pregnancy conveyed a protective effect on allergy development. Other studies using different allergens have shown similar results.
As a result, the 2010 National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) guidelines for managing food allergy state that pregnant women shouldn’t avoid food allergens while pregnant as a way to prevent food allergy in their babies.
Research suggests that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months decreases the incidence of eczema and cow’s milk allergy in the first two years of life compared to babies who drink cow’s milk formula. Breast milk contains a variety of nutrients but also transmits immune properties from mother to baby.
To reduce the likelihood of food allergy development, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, at a minimum. This means no additional formula feedings or solid food to supplement breast milk.
If your baby has a strong family history (a parent or sibling with food or other allergy) of allergies and cannot breastfeed, a partially hydrolyzed infant formula (also known as hypoallergenic formula) can be useful. Partially hydrolyzed formula contains partially broken down protein so your baby doesn’t have to fully digest it. Intact proteins, such as whey and casein commonly found in cow’s milk infant formula, are not present, reducing the risk of sensitizing your baby’s immune system.
Solid Food Introduction
Early introduction of solid food (before 4 months of age) may be more likely to cause a food allergy. At this young age, your baby’s digestive system isn’t fully mature, making it more susceptible to alerting the immune system against food allergens. The optimal way to introduce solid food is in the presence of ongoing breastfeeding.
Unfortunately, however, according to a study performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of mothers introduced solid food to their baby before 4 months of age. Nine percent of mothers started solid food before 4 weeks of age.
Delaying solid food introduction beyond 6 months of age doesn’t appear to prevent food allergies, either.
Avoiding Food Allergens
In foreign countries like Israel, peanuts are introduced before 9 months of age, and children have a lower incidence of food allergy. In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, the practice has been to restrict food allergens, and the incidence of food allergies is increasing.
Recent research out of the UK and recommendations from the AAP advise allowing food allergens, like milk, soy, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish and wheat, age-appropriately, between ages 6 to 12 months.
One way to follow these recommendations is to introduce solids around 6 months using single-ingredient foods such as iron-fortified infant cereal, pureed fruit, vegetables, and meats offered every two to three days. Watch for signs of intolerance like spitting up or vomiting, diarrhea, or skin rashes, which may indicate an allergic reaction. If no negative reaction is seen, proceed with the next new food.
You can always speak with your pediatrician and map out a plan if you have questions about starting solids or know that your child is at higher risk for developing food allergies.
- It’s difficult to determine which children will develop a food allergy, but certain factors place children at higher risk.
- Breastfeeding is protective against food allergy development.
- The timing of solid food introduction and which foods are offered may also shape the formation of food allergy.