Statistics show that food allergies and intolerances are rising steeply, and these figures include new born babies. Baby milk allergy sufferers and lactose intolerance in babies, as well as nut, egg, and gluten allergies, are not entirely uncommon. The causes of these allergies are complex and linked to several factors, but the basic mechanism of an allergic reaction is that the human body comes into contact with a substance it does not ‘recognise’ (or no longer recognises) and activates its defence system in order to eliminate the intruder.
While there are many different symptoms of allergies, the solution is always the same: avoidance, removing the offending ingredient completely from your baby's diet.
Studies suggest that by introducing solid foods gradually and methodically, you may help reduce the risk of your child developing allergies. The following information may help to answer some of your questions about this subject.
Does breastfeeding help to prevent baby food allergies?
Generally speaking, breastfeeding helps to reduce the risk of food allergies developing in babies.
Infants born to ‘high-risk’ families, where there is a family history of allergies (i.e. the father, mother or siblings have allergies) can be at higher risk of becoming allergic to proteins found in cows' milk and in this situation, breastfeeding is even more strongly recommended in order to help reduce the risk of developing an allergy. Healthcare professionals may even recommend limiting dairy products and other allergenic foods in the mother's diet to reduce the milk protein transfer in her breast milk.
Although it is not possible for everyone, ideally babies should be breastfed for the first six months of their life as breast feeding also helps to boost babies’ immune systems. The digestive system also matures more effectively. It is essential that solid foods are then introduced very gradually.
Baby allergy symptoms
Depending on the food responsible, symptoms to look out for include vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain, hives, slight swelling of the lips and tongue, eczema, asthma and recurrent ear, nose and throat (ENT) infections, and potential disruption to the child's growth rate, which you can monitor via their growth chart.
What are the main allergenic foods?
The main food allergens are eggs, gluten, fish, peanuts and cows' milk proteins.
- Egg allergy in babies: The culprit is often the egg white and it is recommended that you don’t give babies raw or undercooked egg whites before the age of 1 year. The yolk can be introduced after 6 months. If you child is diagnosed with an egg allergy, bear in mind that many food products are manufactured using ingredients containing eggs. You will need to read the label and list of ingredients carefully.
- Gluten intolerance in babies: Gluten is a protein found in cereals such as wheat (including bread wheat, spelt and Khorasan wheat (popularly sold under the Kamut brand), rye, oats and barley. As soon as a gluten intolerance is diagnosed, all products derived from these cereals will need to be eliminated from the diet. Fortunately, current regulations require that all products that contain gluten must be clearly labelled to show this. Infant cereals for babies from 4-6 months may be gluten free, but always check the ingredients list. However it is possible to introduce gluten gradually from the age of 6 months onwards.
- Peanut allergy in infants: Peanuts are not really a nut but a legume, commonly referred to as the bean and pea family. If your child is high risk (for example, there is a family history of peanut allergy) then discuss with your GP first before introducing peanuts (in the form of peanut butter or finely ground peanuts) to your child’s diet, to establish whether it is safe to do so. Like eggs and gluten, peanuts may be present in many manufactured foods not designed for children. You will need to read the label in order to check for the inclusion of peanuts. Peanuts may occasionally be found in a product even though they are not deliberately added, so check so-called “may contain” statements. Remember, whole peanuts are not recommended for children under the age of 5 years, even if your chid is not high risk, as they are a choking hazard.
- Nut allergy in babies: Nuts, or tree nuts as they are sometimes called, cover a number of foods; almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio nuts and macadamia or Queensland nuts. If your child is considered high risk, then discuss with your GP first before introducing nuts (in the form of nut butters or finely ground nuts) to your child’s diet. Like eggs and gluten, nuts may be present in many manufactured foods that are not designed for children. You will need to read the label in order to check for the inclusion of any nuts. You should also check whether nuts can be found in a product even when they’re not deliberately added, by checking so-called “may contain” statements. Remember, whole nuts are not recommended for children under the age of 5 years, as they are a choking hazard.
- Milk allergy in babies: Cows’ milk protein allergy is common, particularly in infants. Your healthcare professional, will help you decide which baby milk alternative would be best for your little one in this situation.
So, careful weaning may help to reduce the risk of food allergies developing in babies. How should you go about it in practical terms?
You can reduce the risk of your baby developing food allergies by following the advice of your health care professional and weaning your baby gradually.
- It is preferable to continue to breastfeed whilst solids are introduced to your baby’s diet.
- Start introducing solids at around six months.
- Only introduce one new food to your child at a time. Start with a small amount and allow at least three days between each new food to help identify any allergic reactions, especially for the highly allergenic foods such as wheat or egg.
- Start with infant cereals that are gluten-free, and only use infant cereals that contain gluten after six months.
- Follow normal weaning recommendations, using foods such as rice, potatoes, root and green vegetables, apple, pear and bananas, in their meals. Give them to your baby individually.
- Always cook fruit and vegetables thoroughly (before reducing them to a purée or compote) until they are old enough to eat them raw (around eight months).
If you want more tips on safely weaning your baby, read our detailed weaning guide.
Who can diagnose an allergy?
In the first instance, your GP or paediatrician may prescribe a blood test. It is then recommended that you consult an allergist – your GP will tell you what to do. Some allergists specialise in infant allergies.
Can allergies be cured?
Unfortunately no medical cure currently exists for food allergies. However, some children do outgrow them. If your child has a food allergy, they would need to be re-tested by your health care professional at regular intervals to establish the persistence of their allergy.
Allergies in the UK
- According to the Food Standards Agency, it is estimated that 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children have a food allergy*.
- The UK has one of the highest prevalence of allergies in Europe with an estimated 30% of the population suffering from an allergy at some time in their lives.
- Prevalence of food allergy is highest in young children.