According to the World Health Organization, around 6% of children worldwide experience food allergy symptoms. A food allergy is defined as a hypersensitive immune response to even the smallest traces of a food allergen. In some cases, a food allergy can be severe and even life-threatening.
Unlike a food allergy, food intolerances tend to produce less severe symptoms that are generally limited to the scope of digestive problems. It can be easy to mix up food allergies with food intolerances because the symptoms in their mild forms look very similar. Although both conditions can lead to upset tummies, unlike food allergy, food intolerance does not trigger an immune response and it's never severe enough to endanger one's life.
Now that we've cleared up those important differences, it's time to take a closer look into food allergies so you learn how to help prevent your little one from developing an allergy. First, we'll take a look at the most common allergy symptoms and then some steps you can take to help prevent them. Heads up parents, our advice is for formula-fed and breastmilk-fed babies because allergy prevention is essential to any infant diet!
Foods that Can Cause an Allergic Reaction in Babies
It's during the first year of life that most food allergies develop. Virtually all kinds of food can cause food allergy symptoms, but in that first year, 90% of food allergies that develop in babies are caused by eggs and milk. For egg allergies, babies are often especially allergic to the yolk. As for milk allergies, the most common allergies are to cow and soy milk.
However, for toddlers and older children allergies look a little bit different. From toddlerhood onwards, the most common food allergens are peanuts, (I'm sure we all know little ones with peanut allergies), tree nuts, wheat, and soy. In particular, peanuts and tree nuts have been known to cause severe allergic reactions.
Although eggs are a common trigger for allergies, they aren't all bad. They're an excellent source of protein and healthy fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids). Because of the health benefits that eggs and especially yolks offer, they’re often added to babies’ diets after 6 months of age.
However, eggs mustn't be introduced into babies' diets before four months. Otherwise, it can provoke oral allergy syndrome (an allergic reaction confined to the lips, mouth, and throat) or severe allergic reactions.
Moving on to cow's milk, everyone knows that a glass of milk can be a great source of protein, calories, and calcium for older children. But during your baby's first year of life, breastmilk and baby formula are designed to meet their nutritional needs. Plain cow’s milk should only be introduced into your child's diet after their first birthday. This is because cow milk lacks nutrients such as iron, vitamin C, and age-appropriate fats that are essential for an infant's health.
Soy milk on the other hand is known to be both difficult for babies to digest and commonly provokes a soy allergy. It's recommended to only offer your little one soy milk past one year of age and with the consultation of your child's doctor first.
Breastmilk rarely provokes any allergic reactions in babies. However, sometimes mothers notice that particular food in their own diet can cause an allergic reaction in their baby. When this happens, it can cause symptoms like abdominal discomfort, colic, diarrhea, or skin rash in babies.
Currently, there is not sufficient evidence to suggest that avoiding allergenic foods in the maternal diet can prevent different types of food allergies from occurring in breastfed babies. That being said, there is lots of anecdotal evidence from moms who have found that by eliminating allergenic foods from their diet, their breastfed child's symptoms of food allergies have been improved. This finding is especially true concerning removing cow and soy milk from the maternal diet.
If you're a mom with a family history of severe food allergies, it's recommended that you limit or avoid consuming dairy products or milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, and fried foods. Removing these potential allergens from the maternal diet may help to prevent the development of food allergies in your breastfed baby.
Food Additives that Can Provoke Allergies
Formula-fed babies are exposed to different ingredients than exclusively breastfed babies. Because of this, some babies end up developing food allergy symptoms from food additives in their formula. These common allergens include soy, palm oil, different metals, sulfites, sodium benzoates, food coloring, and sugar.
If you take a look at many baby formula ingredients lists, you'll often find soy milk lecithin. This additive is commonly used as an emulsifier (i.e it helps to stabilize processed foods). The problem with this ingredient is that it's been known to cause mild adverse reactions in babies such as mouth itching, mouth swelling or even causing an itchy rash.
As a byproduct of processing baby formula, toxic metals such as nickel can occasionally be introduced. Trace amounts of nickel in baby formula can cause an abnormal immune response in babies leading to harmful changes in a baby's skin.
Yet another problematic additive found in baby formula is sulfites or sulfate agents. These are used to prevent or delay food spoiling. While the extended shelf-life of baby formula can be seen as a plus, when it's added to the formula at a concentration of more than 10 mg/kg, that's when unwanted side effects start happening. At this concentration, sulfites can cause severe eczema and other symptoms of a food allergy in children and babies.
Some additives in formula are used to enhance the color of the formula. Common colorings you may come across include annatto, tartrazine, and carmine. These known allergens can induce a range of symptoms of food allergies, some of which may even be severe reactions. These particular food additives, while common, are not suitable as part of a baby's diet.
All of the harmful consequences of these additives and colorings show just how important it is to carefully read the ingredients list of your baby's formula to prevent food allergies. Thankfully if EU organic formulas are part of your baby's diet, you can take peace of mind in knowing that each batch of formula is subject to some of the strictest safety controls and quality checks for organic production. You can also take pride in nourishing your little one with clean organic ingredients that while skipping out on harmful and unnecessary additives that are prohibited by the EU.
Your little one can develop allergies to a whole host of foods. But regardless of what it is that causes their allergy, all food allergy symptoms can be classified as causing weak, mild, or severe allergic reactions in the immune system. Once a baby has been exposed to a food allergen, they'll develop symptoms in ranging severity within a matter of minutes.
Weak Food Allergy
For a weak food allergy reaction, the first signs usually start appearing in babies' skin and mucous membranes. Parents should watch out for allergic symptoms such as itching, eye-watering, skin swelling, sneezing, and wheezing.
Mild Food Allergy
Mild food allergies affect babies' bodies in a more holistic sense. It's important to look out for allergic symptoms that affect the skin such as face swelling, hives that look like bug bites, red skin around the mouth with pale skin, and eczema. Eczema can manifest differently depending on your baby's age.
For babies under six months, the signs are a scaly rash on the chin, cheeks, scalp, or forehead. Between 6 and 12 months of age eczema commonly occurs on the knees and elbows.
Finally, after their first birthday, children's main symptoms of eczema are dry, thick, and scaly rashes on the ankles, hands, and wrists. Mild food allergies can also appear as flu-like symptoms manifesting as a runny nose, diarrhea with or without vomiting, and abdominal pain.
Severe Food Allergy
Anaphylactic shock is a severe reaction of the immune system and a potentially deadly symptom of food allergy. Although it is a very rare health condition, parents should be aware of it and take the necessary precautions to safeguard against it (for example by carrying an epi-pen at all times). The first step in allergic reaction prevention is to see your pediatrician and work with them to develop a plan for how to prevent a food allergy episode.
This severe allergic reaction's main symptoms are flushed skin, swelling of different parts of the body, trouble breathing, lowered blood pressure, and even loss of consciousness.
If your child goes into anaphylactic shock, seek immediate emergency medical attention from your child's doctor. It is important to follow the instructions of your child's doctor or the medical assistance on site. It is not recommended to use any unprescribed drugs to treat an abnormal immune response.
How Can You Avoid Allergies When Introducing Your Baby to New Food?
As a little reminder, we want to emphasize that if you have a family history of severe food allergies, the best thing you can do for your little one is to breastfeed exclusively for the first 4 to 6 months. During this period, breast milk changes according to babies’ nutritional and energetic needs.
After the sixth month mark, babies will start to show an interest in the solid food that their parents are eating. When this happens, parents can begin taking some precautions to prevent different types of food allergies from developing as solid foods are introduced to babies’ diets.
Do you know that old saying slow and steady wins with race? Well, when it comes to introducing solid foods to your baby's diet that's exactly the way to do it! You should begin to introduce these foods to your baby gradually.
This means you should only give one type of new age-appropriate food to your baby every five days. During this window, attention to your baby's health is key as new foods could be potential new allergens. Make sure to pay extra attention to your little one's behavior and body and watch for the signs of an allergic reaction (i.e eczema, skin abnormalities, flu-like symptoms, etc.).
The best solid foods to start with are grains, fruits, and veggies because they are gentle on tiny tummies and have a low allergen risk. Once your little one has given those a try and tolerated them well, then you can move on to other foods that contain potential allergens. If those are well tolerated too then you can gradually increase the amount you're giving your baby over the next several days.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has outlined some recommendations to prevent food allergies in babies. Their advice is to postpone introducing solid food until your baby is at least six months and ideally twelve months of age. This method has shown success in preventing food intolerance and food allergies ranging from mild allergic symptoms to even life-threatening severe reactions.
The best thing you can do is start by being aware and alert, look out for severe symptoms of food allergy after your child eats; especially for high-risk foods like peanuts because they can be fatal. The second you see signs of an allergic reaction in your baby, it’s time to seek emergency medical care or the attention of your child's doctor.
If your baby has weak or mild symptoms of common food allergies, you should stop feeding them potentially highly allergenic foods immediately and seek medical assistance as quickly as possible within twenty-four hours. This way, allergy treatment can be prescribed by the child's doctor or medical caregiver. It is important to follow their recommendations thoroughly.
After dealing with the allergy symptoms, if necessary by using allergy medicine, it is usually recommended to begin allergy testing. For this, an allergist will likely perform what's known as a food challenge test. During this test, a small amount of an allergen is given to your child, and then they're monitored for an allergic reaction.
If a food allergy is diagnosed, to prevent a food intolerance or food allergy reaction your child's doctor may recommend that you carry a chef's card when bringing your family out to eat. This printed little card tells restaurant workers what foods your little one has to avoid to prevent a food allergy reaction. This food allergy card is a great way to keep your little one safe and minimize the risk of a food allergy reaction occurring.
The severe life-threatening symptoms of a food allergy can change the quality of life of a baby. That's why it's so important to get an accurate food allergy diagnosis. It's also critical that parents have a strong foundation of knowledge about the foods their baby is allergic to. Although the diagnostic process can be long and difficult, it's worth it for your little one's well-being!
Unfortunately, blood and skin allergy testing for food allergies often produces unreliable results with frequent false negatives and false positives. So the safest way to diagnose a food allergy is with the food challenge test.
This test can be used to confirm a suspected existing food allergy and it can help to identify an unknown food allergy. Your baby will only be exposed to one food per test. You can feel good that during the challenge your baby will be under strict supervision. After a potential allergen is ingested, your baby will be closely monitored for any allergic symptoms.
Once the test is complete you can finally have your questions answered. You'll know what foods your little one has a food allergy immune response to. Later in life, the results can also indicate whether or not your child has outgrown their food allergy.
Final Thoughts On Food Allergy in Babies
There are over 70 potential food allergens that can cause symptoms of food allergy in infants ranging from mild symptoms to severe reactions. Out of these allergens, 9 of them make up 90% of all cases of food allergy. Some of the most common allergies are egg allergy and peanut allergy both of which can cause severe reactions such as difficulty breathing or low blood pressure.
During babies' first year of life, the food allergens soy milk, cow's milk, and eggs are common causes of food allergy. Thankfully research has shown that children will often outgrow their food allergies. For example, a food allergy to cow's milk, eggs, and soy milk is often outgrown by the age of 16. But because most allergies develop during that first year of life, parents need to be on the lookout for mild and severe symptoms of food allergy. This ensures that parents will be able to seek medical care for their baby in time to treat the symptoms.
Here's a quick breakdown of how you can help to prevent food allergies:
Exclusively breastfeed for the first 4 to 6 months of your baby's life
For formula-fed babies, use an easily digested hypoallergenic formula (only if your child is at risk of developing allergies and you got that a-okay from your child's doctor)
Only introduce solids into your baby's diet starting at six months of age on a gradual basis starting with low-allergen food and only moving onto more allergenic foods once the first foods have proven to be well tolerated
Limit your baby's exposure to dust mites to reduce the risk of food and other allergies
Make sure to discuss food allergy symptoms with your child's doctor to help prevent life-threatening allergic reactions. Because a food allergy can be outgrown, parents should continue communicating with their child’s doctor so they can identify if their child has built up a tolerance for a previous allergy-inducing food.
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends in babies, and it is not medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes to your child’s formula and when choosing your child’s formula. Always consult your pediatrician before making any decisions about your child’s diet or if you notice any changes in your child.
Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for your baby because breast milk provides your child with all the essential nutrients they need for growth and development. Please consult your pediatrician if your child requires supplemental feeding.