Do you ever wonder why allergies are so prevalent these days? How can peanut butter be one person’s favorite food while being the next person’s kryptonite? With all the conflicting information and theories regarding when and how best to introduce babies to allergens and foods, what is the right way?
Why Are Allergies so Common?
In general, allergies are a confusing topic. Over the last decades, allergies to foods and environmental triggers have skyrocketed in the general population. According to several published studies, the total prevalence of allergic symptoms during childhood has increased eightfold from 1950 to 1995. Only 5% of children had some type of allergic symptomatology in the 1950s, and recent reports show a prevalence of up to 40% . So what is to blame for this?
There are many theories about why allergies are so prevalent, the most popular of which is the hygiene hypothesis. The hygiene hypothesis postulates that as humans have become more industrialized by improving general hygiene, cleaning of homes, and not allowing our kids to “play in the dirt,” our immune systems have suffered and are not as adaptable to allergens as they used to be generations ago. Whether that is the simple truth or not is still up for debate.
Early Introduction May Be Key
Perhaps the most influential study that has been done in recent years is the LEAP study. The LEAP study found that introducing peanuts to an infant’s diet before 11 months reduced the prevalence of a peanut allergy by up to 80%! The study led to a fundamental change in how professionals recommend families introduce solids and allergens to infants. Since then, many studies have replicated these findings and have supported the early introduction of foods as an effective way to prevent the development of food allergies.
Of course, there are many exceptions to this rule, such as whether a baby has already developed severe eczema or a strong family history of food allergies and specific factors that may require children to be under the care of a specialist. The most important thing to keep in mind is to consult with your pediatrician regarding your children in particular. No two babies are alike, and your child may require a personalized approach.
The Gut Microbiome is Vital to a Healthy Immune System
The more we study this allergy conundrum, the more we realize how multifactorial this phenomenon is. A huge part of our immune system lies in our gut, called the microbiome. This consists of trillions of colonies of good bacteria and other organisms that shape and mold our immune system from birth and affect our vulnerability to disease, inflammation, and allergies.
As the child passes through the birth canal, has skin-to-skin contact for the first time, and then starts feeding, he/she inherits mom’s microbiome. In turn, this is creating the building blocks for their immune system. There is growing scientific evidence that links improving gut microbiome to fewer allergic syndromes. For example, probiotics during pregnancy and afterward are thought to help improve this gut microbiome.
It is also vital to minimize unnecessary antibiotic use when possible since antibiotics can kill many good bacteria in our gut leading to a weakened immune system. There continues to be much research on this topic. Still, the important take away is that we should try to give our gut nutritious, unprocessed foods, reduce unnecessary antibiotic intake, and take care of our gut. It can be the key to uncovering the association of food and other allergies in children and adults.
Minimizing the Risk of Allergies
Here is what you can do at each stage of your child’s life to minimize their risk for allergies:
During Pregnancy and Newborn Period
- Ensure you take prenatal vitamins, probiotics and expose your unborn baby to a wide variety of foods. Try not to limit any type of food during pregnancy. Remember, your baby will eat what you eat, and the more you expose them, the better!
- Breastfeed if possible. Breastfeeding exposes your baby to a wide variety of allergens early on in their life. Eat a hearty and well-balanced diet while breastfeeding without avoiding major food groups if you can. If you’re unable to breastfeed, don’t fret, you still have other opportunities to expose your baby to a variety of different allergens.
- Talk to your pediatrician about whether vitamins are appropriate for your baby/child. We recommend vitamin D for all breastfed babies from birth, iron at six months of age, and a multivitamin for older children depending on their dietary and growth requirements.
For the First Year of Life
- For the average well-baby, we recommend starting solids as early as four months of age. Start with one food at a time, first with pureed vegetables, followed by fruits, then meats.
- Allow your children and babies to get dirty at an early age. Mealtimes are supposed to be messy! Expose them to pets and the outdoors from the day they are born.
- Be actively involved in mealtime with your baby and continue the involvement for years to come. Talk to your babies while feeding them. Let them know why food is good for them. Teach them about food.
- Do not get discouraged if your baby seems to dislike a certain type of food. Keep trying and exposing them to it. Taste buds change!
- We recommend allergen exposure such as peanuts and eggs as early as six months of age with your pediatrician’s guidance. If you have concerns about intolerance or allergy, please talk to your pediatrician.
- Avoid honey until one year of age due to the risk of botulism.
For Toddlers and Early Childhood
- Set a precedent for a consistent mealtime routine without screens and distractions.
- Set a good example for your children by eating together as a family and eating a healthy, well-balanced diet yourself! Do you see a pattern yet? It all starts with you!
- Avoid starting your baby on an allergy medication too early in life unless specifically recommended by your pediatrician. Allow your baby’s body to evolve and build a tolerance to the world around them.
No matter how you choose to expose your children to the world, we understand that the choice is yours and that no two babies will be brought up the exact same way. In summary, while science has indicated that early exposure to allergens is the superior method for introduction, talk to your health care provider about the best way to move forward with your baby.