Preventing Food Allergies From Developing in Your Child

Black pregnant woman eating peanut butter in kitchen
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With serious food allergies on the rise, many prospective and new parents would like to know if it's possible to prevent a baby or a young child from developing allergies. But is there any way to lower the risk of allergies in children?

Maybe, say experts.

If you and your family do not have a history of allergies, delaying feeding your child dairy or not eating peanuts during pregnancy will not lower the risk of your child developing allergies. Current research shows that elimination diets and delayed introduction of foods have no effect on the risk of developing food allergies in most children.

If, however, you have a “high-risk” child – one with at least one parent or sibling with allergies – it may lower the risk of food allergies or delay their development to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines for preventing allergies, which emphasize breastfeeding.

Avoiding Allergenic Foods While Pregnant

A 2006 Cochrane review of four medical studies found no link between the diet of mothers during pregnancy and later allergic eczema in their babies.  This study and others led the AAP to change their guidelines for pregnant and nursing mothers in 2008: the group of pediatricians now recommends that mothers do not restrict their diets during pregnancy.

In fact, a study published in 2014 found that peanut, wheat and milk consumption during pregnancy was associated with a reduced incidence of food allergy and asthma in babies and children. Specifically, the more peanuts a pregnant woman ate, the lower her child's odds of having a peanut allergy.

If you are allergic to a certain food, you obviously should not eat it when you are pregnant, or at other times.  But if you do not have food allergies, eating foods that are common allergens (such as milk or peanuts) is not likely to increase the chance of your baby having food allergies later in life, and may even decrease those chances.

Breastfeed or Bottle-Feed High-Risk Babies

Breast milk may contain food allergens, such as peanut or cow’s milk proteins. Some infants may be sensitive to these allergens and have reactions. And yet, breastfeeding has a protective effect on high-risk babies and may actually delay the development of allergies.

The AAP reviewed 18 studies that compared breastfeeding to formula feeding for high-risk infants. Taken together, the studies showed that breastfeeding for at least four months can lower the risk of your baby developing allergies as compared to feeding your baby cow or soy milk formula during those months. If you supplement with formula, special prescription formulas also lower the risk of allergies, though not as much as breastfeeding.

These studies also found that if you avoid major food allergens while breastfeeding, it does not prevent your baby from developing food allergies. But if your baby already has skin reactions (eczema), avoiding highly allergenic foods while you are breastfeeding may help your baby to have fewer flare-ups.

When to Start Allergenic Foods

The AAP used to recommend a lengthy delay in introducing allergenic foods to high-risk children. But researchers have found no decrease in rates of allergy from long delays, even for highly allergenic foods like peanuts.

The AAP and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) both still recommend delaying the introduction of solid food until six months for high-risk babies. Their guidelines recommend that you should start your six-month-old on foods such as fruits, vegetables, and cereal grains. Introduce new foods one at a time, in small amounts.

Consider lotions, soaps, and shampoos to be an introduction to a new “food” as well. One study found that using skin lotion made from peanut oil increased the risk of peanut allergy later in childhood.

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