Is it time to change baby food guidelines to help prevent allergies?

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 Photo: Getty Images

One of the biggest issues that concern parents today is food allergies.

In fact, you'd be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn't know a child with a food allergy. This is because as many as one in 20 children now have one.

But that didn't use to be the case. Ask any grandparent about food allergies back in their day, and most will say it was something they rarely thought or heard about.

So why are food allergies so common nowadays? And what can we do to help prevent our children developing them?

A new review published yesterday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shed some light on this issue.

"If parents ask how to prevent allergy in their children, our current advice is to introduce the allergenic foods at four to six months of age," wrote Dr Elissa Abrams and Dr Allan Becker from the Department of Pediatric Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the University of Manitoba.

The authors say that once those foods have been introduced, it's then important for your child to eat those foods on a regular basis so they continue to tolerate the food.

This goes against the 'old' thinking, which said it was best to avoid giving children foods they may be allergic to when they were 'too young'. Based on such thinking, many parents were advised to delay giving babies foods such as peanuts till they were at least 12 months old. (The recent LEAP study challenged that thinking too, showing that allergies to peanuts can be reduced by up to 80 per cent by earlier introduction of peanuts).

While peanuts are the main food we think about when we consider allergies, there are many foods children can be allergic to. According to the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, the most common triggers are eggs, cow's milk, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, sesame, soy, fish and wheat.

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However, according to the Australian Government Department of Health, we are only advised to start giving these kinds of foods to our babies from 8-12 months of age. The first potentially allergenic foods we're advised to give our babies, based on current recommendations, are fish and eggs.

But should we wait this long to give our babies these kind of foods?

Emergency nurse Sarah Hunstead doesn't think so, and she says there's so much unnecessary "fear and avoidance" around allergenic foods.

"It's great to see the evidence that this avoidance is actually not preventative," she says.

She believes introducing solids should be an "exciting developmental milestone", but that many parents are so fearful of their child having an allergic reaction that they withhold foods.

Some parents even go to extreme measures. "I have known some parents who have sat in the waiting room at their local emergency departments to introduce peanut butter of the first time 'just in case'," she says.

While she acknowledges allergies can be serious, she says we should focus our energy on increasing education about them, instead of inciting fear.

For instance, she says most parents don't realise that an allergic reaction usually does not occur the first time a child is given a new food.

In fact, the first time a child has that new food, her body's immune system 'sees' it for the first time. When your child then has that food for a second time, her immune system 'recognises' the food, and can then mount an allergic reaction.

Of course, you still need to practice caution when giving your baby a new food; for instance, you need to avoid giving babies foods that pose a choking risk. (Never give a baby a peanut - instead, offer it in the form of a paste, like smooth peanut butter).

But if you're using commonsense, should you ignore the current guidelines and simply start giving your baby potentially allergenic foods earlier than currently recommended, in order to prevent her from becoming allergic?

While that may be tempting, Hunstead believes it's still best to follow advice given by your doctor or early childhood centre.

That said, it looks like the tide is turning on delaying giving babies certain foods. Hunstead hopes our recommendations to parents will soon change to reflect this new way of thinking.

"I look forward to seeing some new guidelines rolled out here in Australia through the early childhood centres, [though] I wonder how long that will take," she admits.

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