The Dos & Don'ts of Preventing Food Allergies In Kids

An expert take on how you can do right by your little ones.

by Kate Brierley

Two words that can stop any mom, dad, or caretaker in their tracks? Food allergies. They’re a major concern for new and experienced parents alike, and no, it’s not just you — they do seem to be more common now than ever before.

It’s hard enough to get our little ones to eat the things they can and should, never mind worrying about what they can’t. As parents, we spend so much time keeping these tiny humans safe, it’s unthinkable to realize we could unknowingly expose them to something harmful.

But the good news is that there are things you can do that may help prevent food allergies altogether. First, make sure you’re getting the facts from a reliable source. “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions around food allergies,” says Dr. Nivedita More, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health. “A food allergy happens when the body reacts to a particular protein, usually shortly after a food is eaten or ingested.”

Bustle teamed up with Stanford Children’s Health to chat with Dr. More and get her expert take on what parents should — and should not — do in order to prevent food allergies in their kids.

Keep reading to educate yourself — and rest easy knowing you're keeping your family safe.

Do: Breastfeed If You’re Able

You’ve heard the benefits of breastfeeding, but did you know that avoiding food allergies is among them? “Studies show that if the babies are exclusively breastfed for the first four to six months, their chances of food allergies are much less than when they're formula-fed,” Dr. More explains.

More says there is evidence that exclusive breastfeeding, compared with feeding formula made with intact cow milk protein, prevents or delays the occurrence of food allergies. And if you're not able to fully breastfeed, partial breastfeeding — when a baby is given a combination of breast milk and other foods — is recommended and can still be beneficial.

Don't: Be Too Restrictive While Pregnant Or Nursing

Yes, really! What you do before your baby arrives can govern what they become allergic to later in life.

Dr. More recommends pregnant women don’t avoid common allergenic foods, and instead, seek them out proactively. Exposing your baby to foods like almonds, peanuts, eggs, and cow's milk while in utero or while nursing can greatly reduce the risk of an allergy later on. That being said, she emphasizes that these foods should still be eaten in moderation, and a balanced diet is always the best goal to work toward.

Do: Familiarize Yourself With The Most Common Allergens

Get this: 90 percent of food allergies are caused by the same five or six common allergens. So as parents, it’s important to familiarize yourself — and then intentionally expose your children to them. If that sounds scary, it doesn’t have to be, Dr. More assures Bustle.

“A study showed early introduction of peanuts in Israel was actually preventing peanut allergies in the country. We’re seeing a huge difference in the number of allergies because of early introduction of all of these allergenic foods — mainly egg, dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.”

So when is the best time to expose your little one to these foods? Dr. More recommends parents introduce these types of foods between four and six months, after less allergenic foods like fruits, vegetables, and grains. “Delaying the introduction may actually increase the baby’s risk of developing allergies,” she shares.

Don't: Assume All Nut Allergies Are The Same

If you already have a child with a peanut allergy, you may be avoiding more foods than necessary out of an understandable but misguided abundance of caution.

“A common myth is that peanut-allergic children are also allergic to other nuts. That may or may not be true,” as Dr. More explains. “Peanuts are a ground nut or legume, whereas other nuts are from the tree nut family. If a child is allergic to peanuts, they’re not automatically allergic to almonds or cashews. This is a huge misconception.”

Do: Have Your Child Tested Before Assuming They Have Food Allergies

There are food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances, and a whole lot of confusion around the three, which are all treated in different ways.

According to Dr. More, an allergy causes specific reactions to a protein, and can range from mild (skin problems, swelling, or stomach issues) to life-threatening (loss of consciousness, anaphylaxis). A food sensitivity means you have trouble digesting food proteins, like a wheat sensitivity that causes bloating. An intolerance is when the body lacks a certain enzyme. In lactose intolerance, the body doesn't make enough of an enzyme called lactase, which is responsible for breaking down the sugar (lactose) in milk.

Even if your child is experiencing a reaction, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a food allergy. Instead of speculating, consult your pediatrician or other medical expert for a conclusion you can trust, Dr. More recommends.

This post is sponsored by Stanford Children's Health.