By Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson
If you worry about your baby developing a food allergy, you’re not alone. The prevalence of food allergies has increased dramatically in the last decade, doubling for some foods and even tripling for others. Today, nearly six million children (or two children in every classroom) in the U.S. have a food allergy.
The good news is that there is something you can do about it. Groundbreaking research supports that with early introduction and routine feeding of diverse foods, you can help lower a baby’s risk of developing a food allergy – now and in the future.
Food allergy susceptibility is increasing.
Anyone can develop a food allergy, even without a family history. In fact, two out of every three children who develop a food allergy do not have a parent with one.
The modern environment that our babies live in and interact with plays a key role in the accelerating risk of developing a food allergy. Now, more than ever before, understanding the environmental factors babies are exposed to early on and what you can do to influence them can help protect your baby from developing a food allergy later in life.
Learn the 3Ds: Environmental factors increasing food allergy susceptibility
Diet diversity protects.
Exposing a baby to a food early and consistently has been shown to reduce the likelihood the baby will become allergic to that food. Decades of data on delaying the introduction of potential allergens teach us that delaying or avoiding dietary exposure to a food increases the likelihood they will develop an allergy. While a baby is growing and developing, their immune system is too. What's more, feeding a baby a diverse diet in the first year of life is associated with a lower risk of food allergies overall.
Dry skin is bad.
Experts now believe that being environmentally exposed to food particles (such as peanut dust) through the cracks of dry and broken skin (due to eczema, for example) can trigger food allergy development. The immune system can react negatively when exposed to foods through the skin. Children with severe eczema are more than 600 percent more likely to develop food allergies. Keeping your baby’s skin barrier intact is important.
Dogs and dirt are good.
While a baby’s immune system is developing, exposure to “good” bacteria can diversify their microbiome. Early understandings of the microbiome point to diversity as an important mediator in avoiding allergies. Widening exposures outside of indoor-only play environments can be helpful. Research shows that children with pets in the home (who track in dirt and bacteria) have less allergy risk. Urban living and excessive use of antibiotics or hand sanitizers mean today’s children often have less exposure to bacteria that can help mitigate the risk of developing allergies. Avoid unnecessary antibiotics whenever possible, bring the puppy home, and let your kids get (a little) dirty outside.
New science for food allergy protection
A growing body of science indicates that introducing your baby to a variety of potential allergens early, with routine feeding, can build his or her tolerance to foods.
Further research found that introducing young infants to multiple allergens at once was safe. Research further uncovered it was hard for parents to get diverse diets into their infants regularly. Helping parents introduce food early, as early as 4 months of age ideally with ongoing breastfeeding, is one way to increase an infant's exposure, and thus tolerance, to foods.
In response to this collective evidence – and the growing problem of food allergies in children – the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) revised its guidance to pediatricians to urge introduction of peanuts at an early age. And both the FDA and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) support introducing peanuts to an infant's diet early to prevent a food allergy.
A feeding plan to reduce your baby's food allergy risk
Given the new science, parents can follow a few simple steps to help their children avoid developing a food allergy. In addition to taking great care of your baby’s skin barrier to avoid exposure to allergens, leading pediatricians now recommend that parents follow a three-part food allergy protection plan focused on the following feeding habits:
Food allergies can happen to anyone, but we can help protect our babies as their immune systems develop and grow. Infancy and toddlerhood are a critical time to expose our babies to their world, including diverse foods.
By understanding the environmental factors driving food allergy susceptibility, taking good care of your baby’s skin, and using this plan for early and routine dietary exposure to diverse foods, you can help protect your child from developing a food allergy – and open them up to a lifetime of healthy and happy eating.