Up to 40% of children in Australia and New Zealand will suffer from allergies at some time in their childhood, the majority being food allergies, eczema, asthma and hay fever. While for many children the symptoms may be mild and pass as they grow older, for some children these may be life threatening.
There is no single answer to allergy prevention, however there are a number of modifications which can be undertaken to help reduce the risk.
Certain factors seem to predispose some children to developing allergies including a family history of allergies or asthma (not much you can do about that one!), exposure to smoking, introduction of cow’s milk or soy formula before the age of 3-4 months, introduction of solids before the age of 3-4 months, and being born in the spring.
Guidelines reflect reducing these exposures as much as possible and the general principles are:
Stop smoking – ideally prior to conception as this will improve the chances best for your baby throughout the pregnancy and as an infant. It is also important to encourage others who will have close contact to the baby to stop smoking as any type of passive smoke exposure is potentially harmful.
During pregnancy – there is no evidence to show that reducing your exposure to foods during pregnancy has an effect to decrease your child’s chances of allergies. It is recommended that pregnant women have a healthy, well-balanced diet with a variety of foods. (See also our blog about Food Safety in Pregnancy). This includes exposure to peanuts and tree nuts unless you yourself are allergic. Taking probiotics has not been shown to reduce allergies in the unborn child and research is ongoing.
Breastfeeding – if possible breastfeed for the first 6 months. Obviously this is not always achievable and if using formula supplementation for an infant who is at risk of allergies, it is recommended that a hypo-allergenic (HA) cow’s milk formula be used until the age of 6 months.
Introducing solids – solids are not recommended prior to 4-6 months of age. There is no evidence to suggest that delayed exposure to certain foods like eggs, nuts or seafood will reduce the risk of your child developing an allergy (and some studies show that delaying introduction beyond 6 months could increase the risk of allergy, although further research is needed in this area). When introducing these foods it is important to try them one at a time so that if a reaction develops you will be able to identify which food was the cause.
Being aware of if your child is at risk of developing allergies and seeking advice promptly if reactions occur can mean that allergies are able to be identified and managed early on. See your local doctor or emergency department if you are worried about your child’s reaction to a particular food.