Food allergy prevention starts in the womb so, if you’re pregnant, find out what you can do to prevent food allergies in your children… 

“There has been a dramatic rise in allergic diseases both in South Africa and globally in recent years; so much so that we are finding ourselves in the midst of what we may call an ‘allergy epidemic’ today,” says Dr Thulja Trikamjee, a specialist paediatrician and allergologist who practises at Netcare Sunninghill Hospital in Johannesburg.

Is your child at risk?

Dr Trikamjee says that individuals today have a higher risk than ever before of suffering from some form of allergy. According to the Allergy Foundation of South Africa, a baby without any family history of allergies now has a 15% risk of developing an allergic condition within their first few years of life.

“This is not all: the Allergy Foundation further notes that if one parent has an allergy, then the child’s risk increases to between 40 and 50%; and if both parents are allergic, the risk is as great as 60 to 80%. A child who has siblings with allergies also has a significantly increased risk of developing allergies.

“This highlights just how considerable the challenge posed by allergies has become both in South Africa and internationally. While this is so, there have been tremendous advances in our understanding of allergies, and in their management in recent years,” adds Dr Trikamjee.

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Common foods linked to allergies

Dr Trikamjee points out that people can potentially have an allergic reaction to any foods, however, the main allergenic food groups that cause the majority of reactions in children include:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Hen’s eggs
  • Peanuts and tree nuts
  • Wheat
  • Soya
  • Seafood

How to prevent food allergies in children

Dr Trikamjee says that there are ways to lower the risks of your children developing allergies, advising that allergy prevention should begin when a mother first finds out that she is pregnant.

“As the foetus develops, so too does the baby’s immune system. As the baby develops its own antibodies, exposure to potential allergens at this time can assist in preventing them from developing allergies to these substances,” she observes.

“Unbeknownst to most mothers, when they eat something, tiny little food proteins from the food pass through the umbilical cord to the foetus. If this continues through pregnancy, the baby’s immune system starts to recognise these food proteins. This process continues after birth and after the baby starts eating solids.”

Here is Dr Trikamjee’s advice from preventing food allergies in children from the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant:

1. Eat a healthy balanced diet

A healthy pregnancy diet should include food from all of the major food groups. Do not cut out or reduce your consumption of any specific allergenic foods, such as dairy, egg, seafood and nuts, unless you have a confirmed allergy to any of these food items.

2. Eat oily fish

Consider increasing your intake of oily fish, or taking an omega supplement.

3. Don’t smoke or drink

Avoid smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol during pregnancy. And do not expose children to second-hand smoke.

4. Take probiotics

There may be some benefit to taking probiotics in the last trimester, but this is still being researched and has yet to be proven by medical science.

5. Consider a natural birth

Dr Trikamjee says that, from the perspective of a child’s immune system, natural birth is considered preferable over a Caesarean section.

“Natural birth is not always possible, however, and mums should discuss their particular medical histories and preferences with their obstetrician.”

6. Breastfeed

Breastfeed for your baby for as long as you can. The World Health Organisation recommends that babies should be breastfed for at least six months.

“Breastmilk contains numerous immune factors and properties, which can assist in allergy prevention, as well as protect babies from infections,” says Dr Trikamjee.

“Unless you have a confirmed allergy to a specific food or foods, try to ensure that you do not avoid any foods or food groups, both during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, as this will continue to expose your baby to trace amounts of food proteins via your breastmilk.”

7. Starting on solids

When introducing solids to a six-month-old baby, be sure to include allergenic foods like dairy, egg, seafood and nut butters.

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What are the symptoms of a food allergy

“There are many symptoms with which an allergic reaction can present. Often, when it comes to food, the reaction will occur the first time your child eats a specific food,” says Dr Trikamjee.

Symptoms to look out for include the following:

  • Hives
  • Stomach upset
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea or bloody stools
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Change in consciousness or activity

How are food allergies diagnosed?

“Medicine is an ever-evolving science, as are the fields of allergies and immunology, which are progressing rapidly. This means that there are new and novel ways to diagnose and treat food allergies today. This is one of the reasons why it is so important to see an allergy specialist if you or your child are suffering from an allergy or related condition,” says Dr Trikamjee.

“Many of the panel tests that were used for allergy diagnosis previously have today been replaced with more accurate and specific tests, which are more efficient in diagnosing whether your child is truly allergic, or whether they are able to tolerate a certain food or other substance.

Can children outgrow their allergies?

Dr Trikamjee says many children outgrow allergies with a large proportion of children outgrow milk, egg and many nut allergies.

She says an allergy specialist will be able to guide you through the process to the point where your child is able to safely overcome their food allergy.

 

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.