Allergies in Babies

baby girl sat in high chair eating cereal

Nearly 5% of children under 5-years old develop food allergies.

Most are identified during the weaning stage; others develop them a little later once they’ve stopped breastfeeding. It’s important to keep an eye on your baby, even when they’re very young to see if they have developed an intolerance or allergy to something you or they may be eating.

Allergies and intolerances in infants occur when your child's immune system reacts to certain foods. Some allergies can be mild, with stomach upset as one of the symptoms. Some allergic reactions can be severe, with swelling, rashes, vomiting and possibly even anaphylaxis if your child encounters an allergen. In contrast, intolerances are typically mild with symptoms linked to their digestive system (diarrhoea).

When you start introducing solid food to your baby, it's a good idea to start introducing common allergens one at a time, in very small amounts, so that you can spot any reaction and pinpoint what food caused it.

Common Allergens

  • Wheat
  • Cows’ milk (CMPA)
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Seeds
  • Soya
  • Shellfish
  • Fish

These allergens can be introduced from around 6-months as part of your baby’s weaning diet, just like any other foods. Once introduced and no allergy symptoms are presented, they should then become part of your baby’s everyday diet, as to minimise the risk of future allergy or intolerance.

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Gluten is also another allergen that you should look out for as it's becoming more and more common. A gluten allergy is often diagnosed as coeliac disease. This level of sensitivity to gluten (found within wheat, rye, and barley) cannot be diagnosed if gluten is not in your baby's system. Therefore, it's worth noting that this shouldn't be excluded from their diet. Children also can develop an intolerance to wheat later.

You should start introducing eggs and peanuts as early in your weaning journey as possible. Delaying their introduction beyond 6 to 12-months could increase the risk of developing an allergy to them.

Some allergies are outgrown (e.g., milk and eggs), but peanut allergies are typically lifelong.

Allergy Symptoms

  • Vomiting & diarrhoea
  • Red rash
  • Facial swelling
  • Wheezing/shortness of breath
  • Itchy throat
  • Nasal congestion
  • Eyes that are red and itchy

In serious cases, foods can cause anaphylaxis and may require epinephrine to counteract the allergy. This can be life-threatening in babies and toddlers. If you believe your child is going into anaphylactic shock, call 999 immediately.

Introducing Allergens

If breastfeeding, two options are available if your baby develops a cow’s milk allergy (CMPA). This is an increasingly common allergy among babies. This allergy needs to be diagnosed by a doctor, and you will also be supported by a dietitian - whether you are fully and solely breastfeeding or not.

Firstly, you can cut all dairy from your diet so that it doesn’t filter through to your breastmilk. Secondly, you can switch to dairy-free formula as either supplement to give them the extra calcium, or instead of breastfeeding. It is worth talking to your GP about which formula will be best so they can prescribe it.

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For other allergens:

  • Be sure to introduce one allergen at a time. Never give two or more new allergens to your baby in one day.
  • Ensure your baby is well and not recovering from illness. If your baby has eczema, aim for the skin to be well managed/under control before starting.
  • Start with a small amount and build up gradually e.g., ¼ of a teaspoon, increasing slowly over the next few days.
  • Consider offering the food earlier on in the day, such as in the morning, to allow you time to monitor for any signs of a reaction during the day.
  • If your baby refuses the food initially, don’t despair! Try again another day or consider mixing it into a food already tolerated and accepted. Do not force feed - allow baby to go at their own pace.
  • Consider the best way of supporting your baby to consume the allergenic food - often parents find that a purée or mashed foods initially are easier for guaranteeing consumption of the allergen, compared to baby-led style finger food. This depends on your baby’s skills and progress with eating.
  • Once you’ve successfully introduced an allergenic food, it’s important to keep giving it to your baby regularly. This may be easier for some foods such as wheat which is in several foods, but for options like egg and peanut, aim to incorporate in baby’s diet at least once per week, but ideally up to 2 or 3 times per week.

If you're at all worried about introducing allergens or notice a reaction to food that doesn't quite fit the typical reactions list mentioned, do pay your GP or paediatrician a visit, so that they are able to help guide you through food introduction and help identify what may be causing a reaction - it could even be unrelated to food, so it's always worth getting a medical opinion.

Keeping a food diary during this time and noting any allergens (usually highlighted in bold in the ingredients list if using ore-made purées, sachets, or pouches), when they were consumed, and the type of reaction could be really helpful. This helps doctors identify the causes, type of allergy and can greatly help with any treatment.

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