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By Jennifer Fernandez February 07, 2023 4 min read
Reviewed by Dr. Po-Chang Hsu, MD, MS
Your baby’s transition to solid foods is an exciting milestone. This time can be filled with fun and frustration as navigating the world of new baby foods can be complex. New parents quickly learn there are a variety of foods initially off limits.
While some foods are best to avoid in the first year, like raw foods due to choking hazards or developing a food allergy from cow's milk, the story behind honey is a little different.
This natural sugar may seem harmless, but it is actually very dangerous for babies under 1 year and in this article, we’ll explain why.
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The short answer to why babies can't eat honey: Infant Botulism. This is a very rare, however dangerous, and potentially fatal condition that primarily affects infants under 1 year of age. While honey itself is not considered contaminated, it contains the spores of a bacteria called Clostridium Botulinum.
When infants consume these spores, they can proliferate in their digestive tract producing the toxin that causes botulism. Whether it's pasteurized or raw honey, you will want to refrain from introducing honey into your baby's diet right away.
After 12 months of age, honey is safe to consume, as a child’s digestive system has matured enough to handle the dormant bacteria. Botulism does not pose any harm to adults or children over 1 year, so before long, your baby will be able to enjoy the sweetness and nutrients honey has to offer!
Infant Botulism is an illness caused by a buildup of toxins in the large intestine that attacks the nervous system. It is thought that the dormant bacteria called Clostridium Botulinum, which honey contains, comes alive in an infant’s digestive tract.
This is due to the fact that an infant’s gut microbes are changing as they slowly make the transition from milk to solids. Consequently, the bacteria have the opportunity to proliferate in an infant’s tummy, and as it grows, it releases a toxin that can be very harmful to your baby.
As this toxin enters the bloodstream, it affects the release of acetylcholine, a chemical messenger that sends nerve signals to muscles, which results in loss of muscle control and can lead to paralysis and difficulty swallowing and breathing. This is why it is important that infants don't eat honey before the age of 1.
The bacterium C. Botulinum is very common in the environment. It exists in dust, soil, and some foods like canned food. However, these days, food producers take greater precautions. Therefore, this is less of a concern.
This is why it is not recommended to take your baby under 12 months of age out on a very windy day. It is also important to ensure that any vegetables you feed your baby are washed very well and free of trace amounts of dust.
Always sanitize your hands properly
Thoroughly wash and cook all vegetables well
Do not feed your infant honey or other foods that may contain it
Check that food that has been in contact with the earth is not put into an infant’s mouth
Parents can take these simple precautions to protect their babies from illness. While local honey has many health benefits, your baby does not need the added sugars. So you can introduce honey to your child at a later time with confidence.
Infant botulism specifically refers to the illness when it affects children under 12 months old, and symptoms can include:
Weak or altered cry
Lack of facial expression
Decrease in sucking and gagging reflexes
Weakened muscles or paralysis of legs and arms
Respiratory distress and possible respiratory arrest
While some of these signs may point to something less serious like food allergies, it is important that babies are monitored closely especially when new foods begin to be introduced!
Infant botulism is a very rare, but very serious illness. If you believe your infant has contracted botulism, it is important to seek medical attention right away.
Infant botulism is a medical emergency that will most likely require a hospital stay of weeks or possibly months, depending on the severity of the condition.
A doctor will administer an antitoxin to prevent the toxin from causing further damage. Treatment might also entail the administration of IV fluids, a feeding tube, and possibly a ventilator to provide breathing assistance until the paralysis gradually improves and your baby can breathe on their own.
You can safely introduce honey once your baby's first birthday has passed. After one year, your little one’s immune and digestive system will have matured and they will be ready to try this sweet treat.
Until then, be sure to avoid any foods that contain honey as an ingredient. While we don't want to call honey bad, we do want you to refrain from this sugar until your child is ready.
C. Botulinum is a very common bacterium found in honey, and the main takeaway is not to fear it, but take simple precautions as outlined above to protect the health of your baby.
Now that you know what infant botulism is and the symptoms to look out for, you know why it is important not to feed honey or any honey-containing products to babies under 12 months.
And should any symptoms arise, you know to seek medical treatment immediately. After one year, you can pull out the raw honey jar and dive into a world of sugar and sweetness with your little baby honey.
Disclaimer: Please be aware that this information is based on general trends evidenced in babies, it is in no way medical advice. Your baby's doctor should be your first source of information and advice when it comes to your child’s well-being. Always consult your pediatrician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your infant's health.
Agustina Fernandez is a medical doctor, who graduated from Universidad Nacional de Cordoba, in Argentina. She has experience working in an emergency room of a public hospital, where she helped many patients with urgent diseases. However, her true passion are children and she is planning on doing her specialization degree in Pediatrics soon. In the past year, she has become interested in researching about infant nutrition, including breastfeeding, infant formula and food in the first years of little ones' lives.
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Dr. Hsu received his medical degree from Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and holds a Master’s of Science degree from both Harvard University and Tufts University.
Dr. Hsu did research in MRI neuroimaging research of fetal brains at Boston Children’s Hospital, an affiliated hospital of Harvard Medical School. Dr. Hsu is currently a full-time medical writer and consultant.
Outside of the medical profession, Dr. Hsu loves to write, learn new languages, and travel