Signs of food allergies in babies: What parents need to know

As you introduce new foods to your baby’s diet, you may worry about your child having allergic reactions. And that’s a valid concern, given that two million people in the UK live with a food allergy, according to Food Standards Agency.

The foods most likely to cause allergies in the baby’s first year are peanuts, eggs and cow’s milk. Experts now believe that babies exposed to these foods at an early stage have a lower risk of developing allergies to them later in life. The NHS recommendations introducing foods such as peanuts and eggs from around 6 months.

Read on for common questions parents ask as they begin introducing foods to their baby’s diet, and information about the signs and symptoms of food allergy, steps to take in an emergency and where to turn for support.

What is a true food allergy?

According NHS Scotland, food allergy is “when the body’s immune system reacts abnormally to certain foods”. Food allergies can be further subdivided into IgE-mediated reactions (develop within 60 minutes) and non-IgE-mediated allergies (develop within hours or days). Food allergies, however, are not the same thing as “food intolerance,” a problem digesting a particular food such as lactose. The difference can be confusing, but in general, what we’re most likely to think of when we think of a food allergy is an IgE-mediated reaction with the potential to be life-threatening.

How can you safely introduce common allergenic foods into your baby’s diet?

The advises the NHS give your child a new food at a time and in small amounts. Whole cow’s milk is not recommended before your baby’s first birthday. After introducing any new food, watch for any allergic reactions (more on what they might look like in a moment) and seek medical advice if they occur.

Parents should also be careful and seek guidance from a healthcare professional when introducing new foods to babies with eczema, an existing food allergy or a family history of food allergies, eczema, asthma or an allergy – as they are more likely to be allergic to certain foods .

What are common? signs of food allergies in babies?

Data show that most allergic reactions in infants are relatively mild and tend to involve the skin. In a 2018 studyresearchers have found that babies who have allergic reactions tend to have:

  • urticaria 94% of cases,
  • stomach problems in 89% of cases,
  • vomiting in 83% of cases and
  • difficulty breathing 17% of cases.

It’s a good idea for parents to look out for milder symptoms as well. Unexpected, unexplained irritability or sudden changes in behavior immediately after eating can be early indicators of an allergic reaction to food. Meanwhile, symptoms of IgE-mediated food allergies, such as rashes, hives, and itching, tend to appear within minutes or up to two hours after eating.

While any food can potentially cause an allergic reaction, some allergies, such as to egg or milk, may go away over time, according to NCT. Some allergies, such as peanut and seafood allergies, however, are more persistent and can be lifelong. In many cases, genetics play a role in the immune system mistakenly recognizing peanut proteins as something harmful.

How are baby food allergy symptoms treated?

If your baby’s symptoms are mild, a doctor may recommend treating them with an antihistamine. Close monitoring may be necessary for more serious symptoms such as swelling of the mouth or throat, wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and difficult, noisy breathing. With such a small respiratory system, even a small swelling can make it very difficult for the baby to breathe.

If you suspect your baby is having a severe food allergy reaction and is having trouble breathing, this is an emergency you should call 999 immediately.

All A&E departments have protocols in place for how to deal with potentially life-threatening allergic reactions or anaphylaxis. At any age, epinephrine, a hormone that reverses anaphylaxis by constricting blood vessels to raise blood pressure and opening airways to aid breathing, is generally the first line of defense.

How are babies officially diagnosed with food allergies?

A child’s doctor or an allergist or nurse will decide the best way to approach food allergy testing for babies. IgE-mediated food allergies are generally diagnosed through a skin prick or blood test.

Another form of food allergy testing, considered the “Golden RuleAccording to Allergy UK, it’s something known as an ‘oral food trigger’. Here, small amounts of food are given to the patient in a medical setting, who is then closely monitored by health professionals for signs of an allergic reaction. These are often used to confirm a suspected food allergy where test results are unclear, or to determine whether an existing allergy has been overcome.

What is one food allergy action plan?

A written food allergy action plan can help caregivers about when to use epinephrine versus an oral antihistamine. If a baby has a confirmed food allergy, this document (also known as an ‘anaphylaxis action plan’) may include details such as:

  • Strict avoidance of the food or food in question, not only during meals or snacks, but also during activities such as art work or during play
  • Guidelines on how to manage a food allergic reaction
  • Who to notify in an emergency and/or call with questions or concerns
  • Instructions about when to use emergency medications such as oral antihistamines, epinephrine auto-injectors, and inhalers (if prescribed)

Anyone caring for a child should be trained in how to use the epinephrine auto-injector if they use one, and reminded to clean all dishes, cutlery and eating surfaces before use.

Can a registered dietitian help with baby food allergies?

Registered dietitians can help you when you are struggling with how or what to feed your baby. Your health visitor or doctor may be able to refer you to a registered dietitian for advice on nutrition for children with food allergies. Allergy UK also offers dietician service.

In a recent study, mothers of children with food allergies reported higher levels of stress and poor health compared to mothers of children without food allergies. Parents and caregivers with safety concerns may benefit from personalized nutrition support as a helpful guide.

The bottom line for signs of food allergies in babies

It is best to try to prevent food allergies from developing in the first place by early introduction of peanuts, eggs and other foods at about 6 months. If you have any doubts or concerns about this approach, seek medical advice, but try not to delay admission.

While data shows that severe allergic reactions are uncommon in infants, all parents should know what to watch out for and be prepared when introducing new foods. Seeking support from a trusted practitioner and exploring resources offered by organizations such as Allergy UK can provide invaluable assistance to parents navigating the world of food allergies.

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