By Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson
The first few months of life are a very exciting time, as your baby really starts to grow and develop. During this fourth trimester simple steps can help protect your baby from developing a food allergy. Focusing on how she eats and how she is introduced to foods are particularly important.
The food allergy epidemic
Anyone can develop a food allergy, even without a family history: two-thirds of children who develop a food allergy do not have a parent with one.1 With food allergies more than doubling over the past generation of kids, experts believe these drastic increases in susceptibility are being driven by environmental factors.
One of the biggest risk factors influencing babies to develop a food allergy is dry, broken skin (often diagnosed as eczema). The development of food allergies is believed to be driven by topical exposure to invisible, ever-present food particles in the environment (like peanut dust) through skin that is broken due to eczema.
Research shows that babies with eczema can be over 600 percent more likely to develop a food allergy.2
Ways you can help protect your baby from developing a food allergy
1. Create a healthy, protective skin
The skin is our largest organ, providing a protective barrier from the environment. For babies, dry, broken skin is not just uncomfortable and itchy; it leaves them vulnerable. That’s because food particles in the air, on furniture or other home surfaces, in a cream with nut oils - even on a parent’s hands - can enter the body through skin cracks.
When this happens, the baby’s immune system can become sensitized to that food as opposed to tolerant to it. That means that sometimes when a food is exposed through the skin the body is trained to react to that food as a foreign object or allergen.
Ideally, a baby's first exposure to foods should be through the tummy, where the immune system is more likely to be tolerized (or accept foods as food). When the baby's skin is intact and healthy, the protective barrier is maintained, and the improper immune response of sensitization is less likely to occur.
2. Use the tummy to properly expose your baby to foods
While it's important to avoid exposure to food particles through the skin, it's equally important to increase food exposure through the tummy, where it's meant to happen. That's because as a baby digests food, the proper immune response occurs. In other words, her body learns to accept food as food, rather than react to it as an allergen.
Based on landmark scientific studies (LEAP and EAT), and recommended by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), early (as early as 4 months old) and regular dietary exposure to food - specifically the ones often associated with allergies - ;may reduce the risk of a child developing an allergy to that food.*
By understanding the environmental factors for developing a food allergy and taking some simple-yet-important steps - like taking good care of her skin and exposing her to potentially allergenic foods through the tummy - you can help protect your child and help ensure a lifetime of health and happy eating.
Keep your baby’s skin healthy and maintain that protective barrier
- Look for dry, cracked skin. Apply moisturizing ointments containing emollients like petroleum jelly every single day as many times as needed to resolve the dryness and heal skin
- Use scoopable creams and ointments (that you have to scoop from a tub) rather than lotions, which often have the same ingredients, but a lot of extra water
- Avoid emollients or creams that contain lanolin and natural food ingredients like almond oil or coconut oil, as these could cause improper exposure to allergens and possible sensitization
- Avoid using moisturizing butters or products with fragrance (which, although pleasant smelling, are unnecessary and do nothing to improve the barrier you’re trying to create)
Perform routine skin care
- Bathe your baby in warm water (not hot). Be careful to use just a dime-sized amount of baby soap (as soap can be a bit drying)
- When drying your baby, pat the skin - don't wipe (as this can irritate delicate tissues)
- Once the baby is dry, immediately seal the skin with an emollient ointment or petroleum jelly. This step will provide that critical protective layer her delicate skin needs
Things to remember
- Be careful not to over-use baby wipes, as they may contain astringent chemicals. Wiping too hard can create cracks or fissures in the skin, so use wipes gently
- Always wash your hands after touching foods, and before touching your baby - especially if you've handled nuts, shellfish, or other potential food allergens
1 Gupta RS, et al. Hygiene factors associated with childhood food allergy and asthma. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2016;37(6):140-146.
2 Martin PE, et al. Which infants with eczema are at risk for food allergy? Results from a population-based cohort. Clin Exp Allergy. 2015;45(1):255-264