Food allergies in children – can they be prevented?

Food allergies and sensitivities in children are tough challenges. The symptoms it causes can range from unpleasant to downright life threatening. Convincing a small child that he cannot eat certain foods is also not easy. This is of course if you managed to accurately identify the allergen, which may take years. Elimination diets are often expensive and difficult to follow.

The question is, can you prevent your child from developing allergies and sensitivities?

Firstly it is important to explain the difference between true allergies and food sensitivities. Although both occur in response to an antigen, they involve different responses in the immune system.

  • Allergy – a substance leads to the body producing IgE antibodies, which causes the release of histamine. The response is fairly immediate and can vary from hay fever symptoms to serious reactions like anaphylactic shock.
  • Food sensitivies – these are usually due to a IgG reaction, which activates a very complicated immune system response. Symptoms take longer to develop, and are non-specific. It includes frequent respiratory infections, a constant runny nose, glue ear, headaches and migraine, abdominal bloating, eczema, asthma, food cravings and hyperactivity. In small babies it may present as reflux and colic. It is often not recognised for what it is.

What causes food allergies in children?

Why would one person respond to an allergen and the next person not? We don’t know the full answer to this question. There is a very big genetic component though, and some people are genetically more prone to develop an allergy. Some allergies tend to run in families.

Know the culprits

The following foods are commonly linked to sensitivities and allergies:

  • Common allergens linked to serious reactions nuts, peanuts, shellfish, soya and eggs
  • Dairy-based products (milk, cheese, yoghurt)
  • Wheat (bread, pasta, baked goods, cereal, etc)
  • Citrus

Protect your good bacteria

The adult gastrointestinal tract harbours 500-1000 bacterial species. In the last two decades evidence on the role that these bacteria play in the human body has exploded. They influence digestion, immune functioning and brain development. Imbalances in these bacteria has been linked to conditions like allergies, auto-immune diseases and autism.

A newborn baby’s bacterial colonization starts during his journey through the birth canal, where he gets in contact with his mom’s good bacteria. This is a big advantage of giving vaginal birth. In fact, research even shows that colonization will differ between babies born in hospital and babies born at home!  A baby born through Caesarean section will also eventually build up good bacteria in the gut, but it will take a bit longer.

Breastfeeding helps to maintain a baby’s good bacteria. Breastmilk contains both prebiotics (substances promoting the growth of  good bacteria) and actual strains of Bifidobacteria. Antibodies in breastmilk also kill the harmful bacteria that threaten the good bacterial strains.

One should also avoid unnecessary antibiotic use by both the mother during pregnancy and birth, and by the infant after birth.

Breastfeed your baby

There is some evidence that breastfeeding offers protection against allergies like eczema, food sensitivities and respiratory allergies. Breastfeeding helps to maintain the good bacteria, and supports healthy development of the immune system, which can help to prevent ‘unhealthy’ reactions later on.

The European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (Espghan) states that exclusive breastfeeding for 4-6 months is the most effective dietary measure for the prevention of allergies even in high-risk children.

Don’t be too clean

The hygiene hypothesis suggests that extremely clean household conditions and the lack of childhood infections in the modern Western world fails to provide the ‘challenges’ that a child’s developing immune system needs. The immune system never learns to respond the way it should. Many scientists believe that this underlies the growing incidence of allergies and autoimmune disorders.

So hygiene is important, but don’t be too paranoid about protecting your little one from germs, as he also needs this exposure.

Correct introduction of solid foods

This is an extremely controversial topic, with many different opinions. However, increasingly research is supporting exposing baby to allergens sooner rather than later. In short, it is believed that exposing the immune system to an allergen while it is still immature and unable to fully respond can help to prevent a full-out allergic response later on. Speak to your doctor or clinic sister on how to go about this process.

Healthy living all over

Your body will be able to deal with any disease and injury much better if it is healthy.

  • Fruits and veggies should form the basis of one’s diet
  • Eat food as close as possible to it’s natural state
  • Where possible, choose organic and good quality produce
  • Continue avoiding foods with additives, colourants, flavourants, etc. These are not natural and our bodies are not adapted to processing it
  • Be aware that many foods that are market as ‘kiddie-friendly’ actually include very harmful and unhealthy ingredients
  • Get enough exercise and outdoor activity

Should you test for food allergies?

Allergy testing is often recommended, at a great expense. While these have some value, there are various mechanisms through which allergic responses can occur. These tests often misdiagnose allergies, or even test negative for those allergens actually causing the problem. This is especially true in smaller babies and toddlers whose immune systems are still immature.

If you do want to undertake allergy testing it would be best to do so under guidance from an allergy specialist.

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Christine Klynhans is a midwife and lactation consultant with a firm believe that gentle parenting can change the world. She has worked in midwifery since competing her B.Cur nursing degree in 2004, and has a special passion for education and for writing. She currently works in a well-baby clinic and give antenatal classes and breastfeeding support. She enjoys working with parents of babies and toddlers, aiming to help them find gentle solutions to their parenting problems and assisting them in incorporating healthy habits and natural health alternatives into their daily lives.