Preliminary data from the South African Food Sensitisation and Food Allergy (SAFFA) study shows a true food allergy rate of 2.5% among one- to three-year-olds. This translates to 50 000 children with a food allergy in this age group alone. The study found that egg was the most common allergen, followed by peanuts, cow’s milk and fish.
Looking at this data, it’s understandable why parents are hesitant to include these foods in their children’s diets when starting solids. But, Leigh-Ann Silber, a dietician at the Ubuntu Family Health Centre, says research shows introducing allergenic foods sooner, rather than later, may protect against allergies.
The authors of Weaning Sense, Meg Faure and Kath Megaw, agree. They state in the book: “The best research says starting high allergenic foods (peanuts, eggs, fish, all proteins) as early as four months may protect against allergies.”
When should you introduce allergy foods?
“You can start introducing allergy foods when you start introducing solids, or when your baby is six months old,” says Leigh-Ann. “Once introduced, continue to give these foods to your baby twice a week as part of a varied diet to maintain his tolerance for the food. Trying a food, and then not giving it regularly, may result in him developing a food allergy,” she says. “However, if there is a strong family history of food allergies, or if your little one is already showing signs of allergies, such as eczema, your baby will need to be assessed by a specialist before introducing allergenic solids,” write Meg and Kath in Weaning Sense. They say this is best done between four and five months of age, so allergy foods can still be introduced in a timely fashion after a careful assessment has been made.
How should you introduce allergy foods?
Leigh-Ann suggests introducing small quantities of well-cooked eggs and smooth peanut butter to start with. It’s best to do this for the breakfast or lunch meal so you can watch your baby to see whether he has an allergic reaction.
Rub a small amount of the allergy food inside your baby’s lip. If there’s no allergic reaction after a few minutes, you can start giving him small amounts of the food as described below.
Mix a quarter teaspoon of hard-boiled egg or peanut butter into your baby’s usual food (like vegetable purée or porridge).
Gradually increase the amount by half a teaspoon at a time if your baby doesn’t have an allergic reaction.
Rubbing food on your baby’s skin won’t help to identify possible food allergies.
Signs of an allergic reaction
Allergic reactions usually occur quickly, while other reactions to food may be delayed, says Leigh-Ann.
- If you notice any swelling of the lips, eyes or face, hives or welts, vomiting, or any change in your baby’s wellbeing soon after introducing a new food, he could be having an allergic reaction to that particular food. Stop feeding your baby immediately and seek medical advice.
- Call an ambulance immediately if your baby has difficulty breathing, becomes pale and floppy or if his tongue swells after eating. “Minor redness around your baby’s mouth is usually due to skin irritation and is not usually caused by an allergic reaction from food,” says Leigh-Ann.
Allergy vs intolerance
“Cow’s milk protein allergy and lactose intolerance are different. Lactose intolerance is more common, takes longer to develop and can occur at any stage during your child’s life,” explains Leigh-Ann.
She adds that with lactose intolerance, your child will exhibit symptoms between 30 minutes and two hours after ingesting milk or other sources of dairy. Symptoms may include:
- Stomach ache
- Gas and bloating
- Loose stools and/or diarrhoea.
Leigh-Ann says a milk allergy usually only refers to cow’s milk, but can also include other types of milk like soya. “Although milk allergy is most common in infants and children, it can develop at any age. Many children outgrow milk allergies by the age of five years.”
Leigh-Ann says a milk allergy can be triggered within minutes, or it can be hours before your child shows any symptoms of an allergic reaction. Symptoms include:
- Stomach pain
- Skin rash
- Swelling of the lips or throat
- Trouble breathing.
“Lactose intolerance is typically distinguished from a milk allergy by its less severe symptoms and the child’s history of problems with dairy. However, doctors aren’t always able to immediately differentiate between the two,” explains Leigh-Ann. “Your doctor may ask you to keep a food dairy for a while before reintroducing a certain food to your child. If in doubt, there are lab tests that can help diagnose a food allergy,” she concludes.
Common food allergy myths busted
Myth: Children often develop tolerance to cow’s milk, egg, soy and wheat by schoolgoing age.
True: Most food allergies, particularly to milk, eggs, soy, and wheat, are usually outgrown within the first 10 years of life. In contrast, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish allergies are often lifelong allergies, with only 20% of sufferers outgrowing peanut allergy, for example.
Myth: Babies who are exclusively breastfed don’t have food allergies.
False: In fact, food proteins are secreted into breast milk and may elicit a food allergy. In these cases, infants may respond to a maternal elimination diet.
Myth: Symptoms of a food allergy may manifest as colic, gastroesophageal reflux or atopic
dermatitis in infancy.
True: As much as 80% of infants with moderate to severe atopic dermatitis presenting to a tertiary care centre are found to have food hypersensitivities.
Xanet is an award-winning journalist and Living and Loving’s digital editor. She has won numerous awards for her health and wellness articles and was a finalist for the Discovery Journalist of the Year in 2009 and again in 2011 for the Discovery Best Health Consumer Reporting and Feature Writing category. She is responsible for our online presence across social media channels and makes sure our moms have fresh and interesting articles to read every day.