Did you know that approximately 6 per cent of babies develop food allergies? Allergic conditions tend to run in families. Babies with a parent or sibling with eczema, asthma, hay fever or food allergies are at increased risk of developing food allergies. Understandably, many parents want to take steps to reduce their own baby’s risk.
Common food allergens are: milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts (e.g. almond, cashew), fish, shellfish, crustaceans, soy, wheat, and sesame seed. In the past, parents were advised to hold off on introducing many of these foods to their baby’s diet. It was hoped that waiting would lower the chances of developing food allergies.
Recent research suggests the opposite is more likely to be true. Not only does delaying the introduction of common food allergens fail to prevent food allergies, but it may even increase the risk. The findings are welcome news as it gives families the green light to add these foods to their baby’s diet, making it easier to offer a wide range of healthy foods that other family members enjoy.
Here are the current recommendations for introducing new foods to babies who may be at a higher risk of developing food allergies:
- Start offering solid foods at about 6 months of age.
- Begin with choices that are rich in iron. In no particular order, these include: iron-fortified infant cereals, meats, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, seeds, peanuts and tree nuts. Meat, poultry and fish should be soft, moist, boneless, and minced. Peanut, tree nut and seed butters can be blended into infant cereals until smooth. When infants are older and ready for finger foods these butters can be spread thinly on toast strips.
- Introduce the common allergens one at a time, waiting a few days before introducing the next one. The waiting period is approximate, but will make it easier to figure out the culprit food if an allergic reaction happens. It may be comforting to keep in mind that most babies will not have an allergic reaction to these foods.
- Symptoms of an allergic reaction often appear within minutes. If you think your baby has had an allergic reaction to a food, stop giving it. Continue to offer other new foods and talk with your baby’s doctor or nurse practitioner for further guidance.
- If your baby tolerates a new food, continue to offer it regularly (weekly, for example); this may help to maintain tolerance.
- Aim to offer your baby a variety of healthy foods that the rest of the family enjoys from each of the food groups in Canada’s Food Guide. Babies should be able to eat many family foods by about one year of age.
Parents of infants who already have an allergic condition such as eczema or an existing food allergy are encouraged to speak with their child’s doctor, nurse or dietitian, for personalized advice on introducing the common food allergens. Parents can also speak with a Registered Dietitian at HealthLinkBC by calling 8-1-1 (a free service for residents of BC).
Feeding solids to baby can be a joyful experience for families, but also a time filled with questions. Feel free to share your advice and experiences with other readers in the comments field below.
This blog was written in close consultation with Linda Kirste who is the Allergy Nutrition Service Dietitian at HealthLinkBC and Dr. Edmond Chan MD, FRCPC, FAAAAI, Head of the Division of Allergy & Immunology at The University of British Columbia BC Children's Hospital, Allergy Clinic.
HealthLinkBC: Reducing Risk of Food Allergy in Your Baby
HealthLinkBC: Eczema and Food Allergy in Babies and Young Children
Canadian Paediatric Society: Dietary Exposures and Allergy Prevention in High-Risk Infants