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Note from Katie: One in thirteen children in the U.S. suffers from a food allergy. That’s about 2 in every classroom, and rates are rising. I don’t have a lot of firsthand experience with food allergies, so I asked Dr. Katie Marks-Cogan, a board-certified allergist who is also a mom, to weigh in on this important topic. The latest science is evolving at a fast pace and I’m grateful to her for authoring this post on how we as parents can act on the latest food allergy research. While I never thought I’d be recommending a supplement like this for babies, the enormity of the problem and the solid research behind Ready, Set, Food! have thoroughly convinced me. Over to Dr. Katie…
It’s an exciting time to be an allergist because we have a lot of new information about the immune system that has changed the way that we in the medical community think about how to decrease the rate of food allergy development. Specifically, the research shows that rather than delaying introduction of the top allergenic foods (dairy, egg, and peanuts), we should instead introduce these foods early and often to decrease the risk of future food allergy.
I know this finding may surprise many parents who have received the opposite advice. I also know from my experience with my own son how frustrating and time-consuming early and sustained allergen introduction can be.
My hope is that these tips give parents confidence and make it easier for busy families and picky eaters to act on the latest food allergy research.
Why I Now Recommend Early Allergen Introduction
Recent landmark clinical studies have changed the way we think about food allergies in children. Findings from the studies show that feeding babies allergenic foods early and often, starting at 4-11 months of age, can help reduce their risk for developing food allergies by up to 80%.
As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) have published new guidelines supporting allergen introduction at this early age, which is a paradigm shift from the previous clinical guidelines that recommended allergen avoidance until ages 1-3 years old. In fact, studies show that delaying allergen introduction can actually increase your child’s risk for developing a food allergy.
Introducing allergenic foods to your 4-11 month old can be challenging. As parents, we know that many infants are picky eaters. It can be difficult for us to get our babies to eat enough of any food (let alone enough of each allergenic food). In addition, it can be anxiety-provoking as a parent.
I’ve experienced this firsthand with my son. When he was 5 months old, I spent Sunday nights preparing egg, peanut, and yogurt snacks for him to eat each week. (About 80% of all childhood food allergies consist of milk, peanut, and egg allergy.) However, much of these snacks ended up on his face or on the kitchen floor, and everywhere except in his mouth!
Reducing Food Allergy Risk: What Parents Need to Know
This frustrating experience inspired me to help other parents through the challenges of early and sustained allergen introduction by compiling a brief guide.
1. Consult Your Pediatrician
Discuss the new guidelines at your child’s next well visit, especially if your child has severe eczema. It is currently recommended that parents of infants with severe eczema consult with their pediatrician before feeding their baby allergenic foods, in case baby needs allergy screening first.
2. Choose the Right Time for Your Baby
Choose a time that’s best for baby to introduce allergens.
- Pick a time when your baby is healthy and does not have a viral or other illness.
- Also, make sure an adult can monitor your baby for two or more hours, in case of a reaction.
- Only introduce your baby to one allergenic food at a time. That way, if baby reacts, it’s easier to narrow down the source of a reaction.
- Start with a small amount of each allergen, and then slowly increase the amount over time.
- After you know that your baby’s immune system tolerates certain foods, you can feed them multiple allergenic foods at once.
3. Start Early, Between 4-11 Months
Scientists believe that infants have a window of opportunity for reducing their risk of developing food allergies in their first year of life, starting at around 4 months of age. During this window, a baby’s immune system develops either positive or negative responses to foods. And consistently feeding babies allergenic foods during this window can promote a positive immune response and reduce the likelihood of a high-risk allergic reaction in the future.
I used a Play-Doh analogy in my Wellness Mama podcast to make the “window” concept easier to understand. I’ll share it again here.
When you’ve got fresh, new Play-Doh, it’s soft and easy to work with. You can mold it into a zoo animal, or whatever you want. If you leave the Play-Doh out of its can, and find it, maybe three days later, it will feel a bit harder. You can try to mold it, but it won’t be easy.
A child’s immune system works almost the same way. Scientists believe that we have the ability to influence a 4-11 month old’s “new” immune system responses to help it become tolerant to an allergenic food. Consistent oral food introduction helps an infant’s immune system build up the needed tolerance. But, like the three-day-old Play-Doh, it becomes more difficult to influence the child’s immune system towards tolerance as they get older.
4. Continue for Several Months
A baby’s immune system needs sustained early introduction to foods in order to develop a positive response to them. Feeding your baby allergen-containing foods like scrambled eggs, peanut butter, or yogurt only once or twice isn’t enough to reduce their risk of developing a food allergy. In the landmark studies, infants consumed allergenic foods 2-7 times a week for 3-6+ months. In fact, the LEAP study consistently introduced infants to allergens for 4 years. So, make sure to feed your baby common allergens multiple times a week, for several months.
5. Breastfeeding Alone Is Not Enough
Breastfeeding provides a wealth of benefits for both you and your child. Breast milk contains the ideal amount of proteins, fats, and vitamins for your baby’s nutritional needs. Plus, the antibodies in breast milk may help baby fight off viruses and bacteria.
If you choose to breastfeed, you’ll pass food proteins to your baby through your breast milk (the amount varies from mom to mom). This means that if you consume allergenic foods during this time, your baby will get some early exposure to allergens.
However, we don’t have enough conclusive evidence to prove that breastfeeding alone can help lower your child’s risk of developing a food allergy. It is currently recommended that breastfeeding mothers should not specifically avoid allergenic foods with hopes that it will protect against food allergy.
New Options for Parents Concerned About Food Allergy
Is it possible for parents to follow the new guidelines on their own? In a word, yes, but it can be difficult. For one, there’s the concern that many infants are not developmentally ready for solid foods at 4-6 months. In addition, they are often picky eaters (as I saw firsthand with my son).
As seen in one of the recent studies, more than 50% of parents weren’t able to stick with the early allergen introduction protocol (so, they didn’t necessarily see a decrease in food allergy). This underlines just how challenging early and sustained allergen introduction can be.
Fortunately, there are new resources available for parents to help with early and sustained allergen introduction. Families with a history of food allergy especially may want to ensure proper early allergen introduction by using a targeted supplement for this purpose.
I believe that the best product should:
- Follow the precise dosing used in landmark food allergy studies. Following these guidelines helps make sure baby consumes the right amounts of allergens at age-appropriate times.
- Dissolve into breastmilk, formula, or baby food, making it easy to start at 4-11 months, even if your baby is not developmentally ready for solid food.
- Slowly increase the allergen amount over time, and introduce one new food at a time, for maximum safety based on study recommendations and pediatric guidelines.
- Contain only organic, non-GMO ingredients, with no artificial additives or added sugar.
When I realized that there wasn’t a solution available for parents that met my standards as a physician and mom, I, along with a team of leading experts, sought out to develop Ready, Set, Food!, which is an easy and all-natural solution to help parents reduce their child’s food allergy risk.
After over a year of research and development, we were able to create a gentle, pre-measured powder with minute doses of the top allergens — egg, peanut, and milk — in a system that is easy for parents to follow and implement.
My Mission: Reverse the Trend in Food Allergies
I’m excited to give parents the tools and information to help reduce the risk of food allergies and in turn, give their children a head-start towards an allergy-free future. The science is very robust and promising and my hope is that we can reverse the trends that we’ve seen over the last several decades and reduce the number of children suffering with food allergies.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Shani Muhammad, MD, board certified in family medicine and has been practicing for over ten years. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.
Dr. Katie and I are ready to tackle your food allergy questions! Please leave a comment and let us know what you’d like us to answer next. To learn more about Ready, Set, Food!, which I really do think is a much-needed resource for parents concerned about this issue, head over to their website to check out all of the research in detail as well as an exclusive offer for Wellness Mama families.
About the Author:
Katie Marks-Cogan, M.D., is board certified in Allergy/Immunology and Internal Medicine, and treats both pediatric and adult patients. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, she received her M.D. with honors from the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She then completed her residency in Internal Medicine at Northwestern and fellowship in Allergy/Immunology at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania and Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP). After finishing training, she moved to Southern California and currently works in private practice. She is Chief Allergist for Ready, Set, Food! and currently resides in Los Angeles with her husband, 3-year-old son, and 10-month-old daughter where she enjoys hiking, building LEGO castles with her kids, and cooking with her family.