Introducing food allergens
Introducing major food allergens to your baby at the right time could help reduce their risk of developing food allergies.
Unfortunately, food allergies are on the rise, and it can be a source of anxiety for parents when they are introducing new foods to their baby’s diet.
The good news is that by introducing allergenic foods in the first 12 months of life (but not before 4 months), you can reduce the chance of your baby developing a food allergy.
So what is food allergy?
A food allergy is when the body's immune system misinterprets or overreacts to a protein in food, identifying it as harmful or dangerous and triggering a protective response.
Any food can provoke an allergic response, but just a handful of foods account for more than 90% of all reactions. These include milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, pecans, almonds, cashews, pistachios), soy, wheat, fish and shellfish (prawns, crabs, crayfish). Sesame and mustard seeds are also known food allergens.
How can we reduce the risk of developing food allergy?
Current evidence supports introducing solid foods around 6 months of age (but not before 4 months) and including allergenic foods in the first 12 months of your baby’s life. Introducing allergenic foods in this way helps to educate your baby’s immune system to tolerate these food proteins.
This includes peanut, in an age appropriate form, such as a small amount of smooth peanut butter/paste, cooked egg, dairy and wheat products. Babies with severe eczema, with another food allergy or babies who have a first degree relative with food allergy should also follow these guidelines even though they may have a higher chance of developing food allergy.
For more information you can visit the ASCIA website at https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/allergy-prevention/ascia-how-to-introduce-solid-foods-to-babies
Babies who are already allergic to a particular food should not be given that food.
While it is safe to introduce dairy products such as cheese and yoghurt, whole cow milk should be avoided for your baby’s first year as it is difficult to digest.
It is best to introduce known food allergens one at a time, alongside foods that you already know your baby tolerates. Watch closely for any signs of an allergic reaction, and wait one or two days before introducing another allergen.
Signs of an allergic reaction
- If you notice any swelling of the lips, eyes or face, hives or welts, vomiting, or any change in your baby’s well-being (becoming very unsettled) soon after giving a new food, your baby could be having an allergic reaction, so you should stop feeding your baby that food and seek medical advice.
- If there are symptoms of anaphylaxis (difficult/noisy breathing, pale and floppy, swollen tongue) call an ambulance immediately.
- Information about the signs and symptoms of mild to moderate and severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) is on the ASCIA website: https://www.allergy.org.au/patients/about-allergy/anaphylaxis
Anaphylaxis is a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur within seconds of exposure to an offending allergen. It can, among other things, cause a sudden drop in blood pressure and impaired breathing. If your baby experiences any severe reactions such as vomiting or difficulty breathing you should call 000 immediately.
Also bear in mind that a mild reaction can occur on one occasion and a severe reaction to the same food may occur on a subsequent occasion.
Other possible ways to reduce the risk of allergy
A growing body of research suggests that you can help reduce your child’s risk of developing severe food allergies by eating a wide variety of foods while pregnant and breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months helps your baby to develop healthy gut flora – which you can nourish with prebiotic and probiotic foods such as live cultured yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi. Avoiding tobacco smoke during pregnancy and infancy can also help protect against allergic diseases including food allergy.