By Diana Swift
Almost from birth, Monica Gibson’s first-born child, Kyle, was covered in angry red eczema. “As soon as I breastfed him, he would vomit up the milk and hurl it practically across the room,” recalls the St. Mary’s, Ont., mother of three. “He was lethargic and wasn’t gaining weight.” Gibson wondered if something in her milk might be to blame, but her family doctor dismissed her worries as the overreaction of an inexperienced young mom.
A staunch believer in the benefits of breastfeeding, she continued to nurse Kyle for 9 1/2 months, but noticed that her son’s skin improved as soon as she weaned him. Later, when Kyle was turning 2, tests revealed that he had a violent allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, such as filberts. And at age 4, he wound up in the emergency room with the severe, life-threatening allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis; he had just eaten some sesame snaps. Doctors added seeds to the list of Kyle’s food triggers.
Looking back, Gibson says: “When I was pregnant and then nursing, I was barely out of university. I went for cheap but good nutrition and I practically lived on bagels and peanut butter.” Although Kyle’s case is uncommon, it is possible that he was sensitized by particles of peanut protein transmitted to him in Gibson’s breast milk. Recent research by Dr. Peter Vadas at the University of Toronto has identified peanut allergens in mother’s milk, but it’s not yet clear what effects they have on babies. “There is no conclusive evidence so far, but exposure to these allergens in milk could potentially cause a peanut allergy in a child,” says Dr. Sandeep Kapur, a pediatric allergist at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
The thinking used to be that allergies in babies might be minimized if moms-to-be avoided common allergenic foods, such as cow’s milk, peanuts, fish and shellfish. But studies looking at maternal dietary exclusions during gestation found little effect on allergy development in children. World Health Organization guidelines encourage pregnant and nursing moms to eat a normal diet and to introduce age-appropriate foods into their babies’ diets. Check out these tips for reducing allergy risk:
› Breastfeed your child exclusively for the first 4–6 months of her life. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop food allergies by having their underdeveloped immune systems prematurely exposed to allergens in non-maternal foods.
› If exclusive nursing is not possible and allergies to cow’s milk or soy are a serious concern, a mother can give her child a hydrolized (predigested) formula, in which the proteins are broken down and hence less likely to trigger an immune response.
› Do not give your infant vitamin supplements unless your doctor prescribes them; research shows that these can raise the risk of developing food allergies later. In Canada, the only supplementation recommended is vitamin D for breastfed babies; formulas are already fortified.
› Cautiously introduce solid foods such as veggies, rice, oats, meats and fruits to Baby’s diet—but in a paced fashion, one at a time for a week. That way, you can identify any single item that sparks a reaction.
› If a reaction occurs, wait seven days, then reintroduce the item. If the adverse response recurs, it’s safe to assume that Junior has sensitivity to that food.
› Cow’s milk can now be added to Baby’s diet, along with wheat, corn, citrus products and soy.
› Eggs and fish are ready to appear on your toddler’s menu, but withhold peanuts and peanut products till age 3.
While some studies suggest that early exposure to household pets may protect against asthma, families with existing allergies should think twice about acquiring pets in hopes of preventing their baby from developing asthma in childhood.
(The jury’s still out on viruses: while some of these organisms can trigger allergies, recent research on kids attending infant daycare centres suggests that early exposure may be protective.)