Helpful Tips for Living With Your Child’s Food Allergy

Discovering your child has a food allergy is nothing short of terrifying. Likely, the discovery came in the form of a reaction—hives, swelling, itching—that your child exhibited. In other more severe occurrences, your child might have lost consciousness or struggled to breathe. And from that day on you knew that your child was additionally vulnerable to the world around them. You knew that your child had to grow up a little bit faster and a little differently from their peers in order to save their life. There would be separate lunch tables in their future and exclusion from everyday bonding activities that kids do, like swapping snacks.

You also knew from that day on that you would live with an additional level of concern for your child that most parents don’t need to worry about. Gone are the days of casually going to grandma’s house without backup snacks. And running through the drive-thru quickly doesn’t come without a lengthy search of allergen statements on your phone. 

For me, this day came shortly before my son’s first birthday. He was exposed to a small amount of peanut butter and broke into severe hives. A trip to urgent care, cold baths, and a few doses of Benadryl later, he was fine. Seeing your child in that state, unsure of the severity of the reaction, rates high on the list of things that you never want to see. After collecting myself, I prepared for a lifetime of uncertainty. 

Many allergy parents are baptized by fire, throwing themselves into understanding the world of food allergies after an unexpected reaction. My first word of wisdom to new allergy parents is to avoid the trauma of a general Google search. Here is a quick guide to the essentials that you need to know in order to start living with your child’s allergy.

 

Find an allergist

Of course, step #1 is to find an allergist who will guide you through this journey. After a supposed allergic reaction, your child will go through testing which could include blood tests and skin prick tests (when a small amount of an allergen is injected into your skin to monitor for immediate reactions).  

If you have a small child, this can be difficult. Blood tests obviously require needles and skin prick tests typically result in extremely itchy skin that you cannot scratch. Having a strong sense of trust in your allergist and the medical recommendations that they make will help settle your own nerves, which will play a key role in helping to calm your scared child. Just like when you are choosing a pediatrician, if you sense something isn’t clicking with your allergist, keep searching. You will likely have just as many appointments with your allergist as your pediatrician so feeling comfortable with them is paramount. 

 

 

Learn to read labels

Rule #1 of food allergies is always read the label. Even if your child has had a product before, every time you open a new package, you must read the label. Manufacturing lines, cross-contamination potential, and exposure changes constantly. The intricacies of reading labels will vary based on the allergen and the severity of the child’s allergy, but there are three main categories on food labels. 

 

  • The Ingredient List: The nutrition label should specifically indicate if an allergen is an ingredient in the product. If you have ever read labels before, you know that there are a lot of words in common products that are not generally known. It is now your responsibility to find out what those words mean and if they are related to allergens.
  • The ‘Contains’ Section: This section is required to articulate if any of the top eight allergens are in the product. The top eight allergens are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.  According to the FDA, “These eight foods, and any ingredient that contains protein derived from one or more of them, are designated as ‘major food allergens’ by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA).” It is likely that this list will soon be updated to include sesame, but it is not currently a top eight allergen.
  • MOM TIP: I use the ‘Contains’ section as a sort of Cliff Notes for the ingredients list. Since my child has a severe allergy to a top eight allergen, I can quickly see in bold type if his allergens are included.  If they are, I can put the product down without ever having to read the lengthy ingredients.
  • The Advisory Label: These labels are not regulated by FALCPA and are largely present to warn consumers of the potential for cross-contamination dangers. These labels can vary from “Processed in a facility that also processes [allergen]” to “May contain trace amounts of [allergen].”

 

It is important to note that FALCPA doesn’t regulate certain foods: fresh foods, meat, street vendors, etc. My general rule of thumb is if I am still unsure of anything, I don’t allow my allergic child to have it at the moment. Sure, he might experience some temporary disappointment and eat the same chicken nuggets a few times, but at least I know those aren’t going to send him to the ER. 

 

Establish your voice as your child’s advocate

Now that you have spoken to a medical professional and have a full diagnosis, the rest of the world will be on board and accommodating, right? Hard no.  

Unfortunately, we live in a world where people don’t always respect the science behind allergies. You may even have the unpleasant experience of having loved ones (or strangers) tell you that your child needs to “toughen up” as if his medical condition is something that the child or you have control over. The first time you experience this, it will be a true gut punch. 

 

Now that you have spoken to a medical professional and have a full diagnosis, the rest of the world will be on board and accommodating, right? Hard no.

 

This is an intensely personal motivator to find your voice as your child’s advocate. Odds are that your child, especially if school-aged, will need you to articulate the severity of their condition and the steps needed to maintain a safe environment. Being able to confidently have these conversations with others will emphasize the importance of following procedures. Practice having tough conversations in the mirror. Work on maintaining eye contact. If you, like me, tend to have a tremble in your voice when you discuss this extremely emotional topic, do your best to try to overcome it.  A firm, confident advocate is more likely to be heard.  

 

Before I had an allergic child, I was blissfully unaware of the dangers of everyday life.

 

While a firm voice and confidence are crucial, remember to lead with kindness. Before I had an allergic child, I was blissfully unaware of the dangers of everyday life. If you interact with someone who isn’t educated enough for your comfort, kindly ask to speak with someone else. Higher levels of management likely have a better awareness of the severity of food allergies and the legal implications that could arise from an undeclared exposure.

Get comfortable talking over the phone too. Product labeling can be unclear and you will have to call the numbers on the packaging to get further clarification on potential exposures in the manufacturing of products.  A cool and collected demeanor in person or on the phone will open the doors for discussion rather than confrontation. And it will teach your child how to politely interact with others to explain their condition. 

 

 

Talk to your child’s school and caregivers

That voice of an advocate will come in handy as your child begins or continues their education.  School-aged children spend most of their time under the care of other professionals. Currently, 1 in 13 children have food allergies. Recent leaps in the numbers of allergic children led the CDC to administer national voluntary guidelines on how schools should handle food allergies. It is likely that your school adheres to the CDC guidelines, but studies have shown that 16-18 percent of kids with known food allergies have had a reaction from accidental allergen exposure at school. It is paramount everyone in your child’s school be aware of the guidelines.  

 

Currently, one in 13 children have food allergies. Recent leaps in the numbers of allergic children led the CDC to administer national voluntary guidelines on how schools should handle food allergies.

 

The school nurse who would administer medications is likely familiar, but ask the hard questions of your school’s administration. Confirm that the cafeteria staff is clear on their understanding of ingredients in meals. Confirm that the janitorial staff understands that tables need to be sanitized after meals and snacks. Confirm that teachers carry your child’s medication with them to lessons outside of the classroom at all times. 

Provide your school with everything that your allergist recommends which will likely include documentation, prescriptions, and emergency contact information. You can also download a free Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan which presents critical information in an easy to understand way. 

 

Find your community

There are parents who have been faced with this challenge before you. There are groups on nearly every social platform dedicated specifically to food allergies that you can find from a simple search of #foodallergies. Of course, any information gathered from non-medical sources should be fact-checked by your own research and confirmation from your allergist, but these groups are great resources for jumping-off points. Many have shared Google docs of allergen-friendly restaurants, recipes, etc. accessible to their members. 

 

Initially, the onset of anxiety will be hard to handle. But, there are small daily changes that you can do to put those anxieties at ease.

 

Take it upon yourself to establish a “safe network” of family and friends with who you feel comfortable as caregivers for your allergic child. These are the people who will send you text messages with ingredients every time that they feed your child. These people are also the ones who won’t roll their eyes at you if you choose to pack a snack for your child instead of eating their food.

 


 

Learning to navigate the world of food allergies will be a journey for the entire family. Enjoying a whimsical day flying by the seat of your pants will take a backseat to having a high level of preparedness. Initially, the onset of anxiety will be hard to handle. But there are small daily changes that you can do to put those anxieties at ease.  Here are some quick steps you can take to put your mind at ease:

  • Arm yourself with knowledge. A quick search of “food allergies” on the CDC website will give you options for reading on topics from how to go out to eat safely to action plans for natural disasters. 
  • Set up Google alerts for terms like “food safety recall.” Even with regulations, monitoring, and inspections by the FDA, undeclared allergens can make their way into foods that you consider safe for your child.
  • Teach their allergen as a sight word as soon as they are able to understand it.
  • Purchase a silicone band that declares their allergy. If someone is about to hand them food, that person will likely see the allergen wristband on their hand and do a double-take on what they are giving the child.
  • Have specific utensils in your home that are only to be used on your allergic child’s food.  This will limit the potential for cross-contamination, even if it increases the amount of dishes.
  • Create a running list of foods, recipes, restaurants, etc. that are considered “safe.” Share this list with your friends and family who will be feeding your kids.
  • Volunteer for opportunities to shape your child’s school policies regarding food allergy safety, like encouraging parents to pack safe allergen-free lunches regularly.
  • Give yourself a break. There is a learning curve. You will start off only feeling comfortable serving certain foods. As you learn to understand labels, their options will expand and your anxiety will ease. 

 

Read More: The Toddler-Friendly Trader Joe’s Frozen Foods I Always Have On-Hand

 

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