Many parents look forward to introducing solid foods to their baby. Who doesn't enjoy seeing a baby explore new textures and smear peas in his hair? Families enjoy sharing food traditions with children, from birthday cakes to Easter eggs to Halloween candy. However, many parents also worry about food allergies, and with good reason.
"Research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reports that the incidence of serious food allergies has doubled in the past 10 years," says Gail Shapiro, M.D., board certified allergist immunologist from Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center. Shapiro sympathizes with parents' anxieties about their baby's solid food introduction because the medical research varies widely and even conflicts.
A food allergy is an immune response. Possible symptoms of allergies include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, runny eyes and noses, hives, breathing problems, asthma, eczema and other itchy skin conditions. A food sensitivity is not an allergy, but the body refusing to tolerate a particular food. The body's response is less severe, but the treatment is the same -- avoiding the food.
Food allergies can be influenced even before the introduction of solid foods. "Good data suggests that breastfeeding a baby for at least four to nine months decreases the chance of asthma and allergies," Shapiro says. Cynthia Lair, nutrition educator at Bastyr University and author of Feeding the Whole Family, agrees: "The best allergy prevention is breastfeeding. The easiest, safest and best-tolerated food for the first year is breast milk. It is all that the infant needs to survive in the way of nourishment."
Lair encourages parents to use common-sense guidelines such as the emergence of teeth and the ability to sit up without assistance before introducing other foods. If a mother doesn't or can't breastfeed, Shapiro recommends hypoallergenic formulas as the next-best option.
When it comes time to introduce your baby to solid foods, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts recommend delaying introduction of potentially allergenic solid foods for one to three years, with the goal of allergy prevention. While this area is little researched, Lair explains the holistic perspective taught at Bastyr: "Starting solids too early can result in allergies brought on by exposing the immature digestive system to foods it can't handle."
Parents are also encouraged not to be overly restrictive with solid foods. "While introducing allergens too early and in too-high a quantity can cause allergies, it's also not beneficial to completely avoid all allergens until children are older," explains Tracy McDaniel, N.D., L.M., from Seattle Natural Family Medicine. "When humans eat a new food, an intestinal immune cell will sample the solid food for recognition by the immune system and train the body not to react to the food as a threat. This process works particularly well in healthy children. It is a good idea for babies to be exposed to small amounts of potentially allergenic solid foods by the time they are 2 years old."
McDaniel recommends giving your baby high doses of probiotics, the healthy bacteria found in yogurt, to help "train" the body to accept potentially allergenic solid foods. In fact, many doctors prescribe managed doses of probiotics to help decrease allergy symptoms and incidence.
How should parents monitor their baby for potential allergic reactions? "Introduce one solid food at a time with no new foods or changes in medication for two or three days," says Susan Casey, R.D., C.D., pediatric clinical dietician at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center. "This will allow parents to observe and determine whether a food is problematic." If an allergy reaction is suspected, parents should seek the support and assistance of a physician.
When deciding which solid foods to introduce to your baby, Lair encourages parents to be educated consumers and look beyond commercial baby food, which is designed more for profit than health and trains baby to prefer bland calories. "We all need to be more conscious about what we eat and where it came from if we want to lead healthful lives," Lair says.
Ultimately, the upside to delayed solid food introduction is that an allergy may be decreased or avoided. There are no guarantees, of course, and children who delay introduction of certain solid foods may still end up with allergies. The best advice is to discuss food introduction with your baby's physician, learn about nutrition for your child and continue to revisit these issues as she grows.
Tera Schreiber is a freelance writer, a lawyer and former executive director of Great Starts. She lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.
Originally published in the September, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.