Tips for Raising a Child with Food Allergies
What you need to know.
Having a child with food allergies is a scary, often overwhelming experience, especially when those allergies are life-threatening. It can also be very isolating. Just ask the parents of an Edgewater, Florida, first grader whose life-threatening peanut allergies recently put her at the center of protests by other parents who wanted the child to be home schooled so that their children wouldn't be inconvenienced by taking extra safety precautions. Three million children in the United States have food allergies. And for parents figuring out how to safely feed their child at home, school, or on play dates is a constant challenge. Here, we asked food allergy experts and real moms how they handle it:
- Focus on what they CAN eat. "After a diagnosis, many parents walk into a grocery store and just burst into tears, unsure of what they can feed their child," explains Lynda Mitchell, president of the Kids with Food Allergies Foundation. "Start with simple foods that you can cook from scratch, such as meat, potatoes, and vegetables, and once you've had time to do some research into safe foods, you can start adding them back into your child's diet," she says.
- Get connected. When Cathy Artinian's son was diagnosed with nut allergies, she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of research she needed to do. "Even something as simple as booking a vacation was complicated by his allergy," she says. So this stay-at-home mom from New York joined an online community and learned to post queries to the group. "I asked which airlines are nut-free, and immediately received feedback as to which airlines to fly and which to avoid," she says. "Generally if I have a question someone else already has researched the answer." A good place to start is the non-profit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, which provides information about the most common food allergens including milk, eggs, nuts, and fish.
- Inform your child's school. "Most schools are sensitive to nut allergies, but my son has a life-threatening allergy to sesame, which isn't as well understood," explains Alyssa Lipton, a mom of two from New York. "So I created a one page hand-out for his teachers and school administrators stating exactly what he is allergic to, along with a list of common foods that may contain sesame." Lipton also leaves EpiPens at her son's school, along with notes from herself and her son's doctor stating that the school is allowed to administer the drug in an emergency. "I ask my friends not to send their children with hummus or other sesame foods, but of course I can't expect every parent to do the same," she says. "That's why it's important that the teachers are vigilant and not seat him next to another child eating anything with sesame in it."
- Educate your babysitter or nanny. "When we discovered that my then 10-month old was allergic to dairy, eggs, nut and sesame, I educated myself first and then educated both my husband and nanny," says Lauren Rutkin, a mother of three children from New Jersey. "I joined the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI) and bought a DVD that we all watched on how to use an EpiPen." Rutkin regularly has her nanny practice using an EpiPen, especially when she has to go out of town. "I also bought green and red stickers off the FAI web site so that all of my daughter's safe food has a green sticker and anything she can't eat has a red sticker," she says. "And just in case she eats something she shouldn't, I've posted a sign explaining how to spot an allergic reaction in the kitchen."
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- Avoid cross-contamination. "My son was diagnosed with life-threatening allergies to dairy, egg, wheat, oat, rye, barley, nuts, tree nuts and sesame and some additional grains when he was 3 months old," says Stacey Saiontz of New York. "We clearly label which foods are safe for him to eat, and are very strict that all food except his 'safe' foods must stay in the kitchen while all toys must stay out." Additionally, Saiontz bought a separate bread machine and toaster for his food. "My husband, older child, and I still eat unsafe foods, but we're very careful to wipe down the counters when we're done, make sure all the plates and silverware gets washed in the dishwasher, and we constantly wipe my son's hands whenever we're out," she adds.
- Be persistent. Jessica Stolzberg, a New Jersey-based stay-at-home mother of a 6-year old with nut allergies, is careful to check all ingredients at restaurants or with other parents. "I often feel like a pest, but we've had close calls with foods you wouldn't normally suspect, like tortilla chips that were fried in peanut oil," she says. "Another time I quizzed a mother who insisted that her lemon cupcakes were nut-free, until I asked about almond extract, which she had used." Stolzberg says she has only allowed her son to have drop-off playdates at houses where she knows the parents well and feels comfortable bringing her own treats. She knows that her vigilance can be off-putting to some parents, but she doesn't mind. "My job is to keep my son safe, no matter what other people think," she explains.
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* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.