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Starting Solids: Introducing High Allergen Foods

allergies and baby foodGuidelines for introducing baby food in the United States have a long history of shifting with changing medical information, social mores and technology. And, along the way, we’ve failed to comprehensively update the guidelines according to all variables, leading to confusing and conflicting information.

Here’s just one example. For many years, babies were fed their first bites as early as 3 months. During those times, it was recommended that babies start with bland cereals best for immature digestive tracks. Then the recommendation shifted to introducing solids between 4- and 6-months-old, but identifying cereal as an ideal first food was not amended accordingly. In fact, by 6-months-old, children are able to handle much more than cereal.

In 2008, there was a significant shift. A clinical report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) indicated that there is no proven benefit in delaying solids, even high allergen foods, beyond 4- to 6-months*. Fortuitously, the recommendation came at the same time as research supporting the benefit of feeding babies a varied, natural diet rich in flavor.

This all amounts to great new: babies can safely eat almost everything we eat (provided it’s healthy and natural) and it’s good for them!

But, what about food allergies?! Apparently on the rise in the U.S., how does this new approach to introducing solids fit with keeping our babies safe?

Here are some things to keep in mind while considering when to introduce high allergen foods like nuts, eggs and strawberries.

It’s just as much about YOUR readiness than your baby’s
The AAP report indicates a lack of scientific proof that withholding high allergen foods from your baby until they are 1-, 2-, 3-years-old or beyond will prevent allergies. That said, if your child has a nut allergy that you don’t know about and, following the current guidelines, you feed them nuts, they will have an allergic reaction. Intimidating, I know. But, it’s important to remember that this will be the case whether you introduce the allergy-inducing food at 6-months or 3-years-old. So, first and foremost, introducing high allergen foods is about your comfort level. Don’t give them any high allergen food before you are ready.

Talk to your doctor, do your own research
Once you’re ready to introduce high allergen foods, consider talking to your pediatrician about how to do it carefully. This is especially important if your child has a personal or family history of food allergies. The only caveat is that pediatricians are not required to stay on top of the latest thinking and research on food introductions. And, in the scheme of things, food introductions are low on the priority list for many of them. You may find that your pediatrician has outdated information or defaults to an old fashioned approach. Consider their input and, if you want to learn more, do your own research. Dr. Greene is just one great resource for up-to-date research on feeding.

Don’t be ruled by fear
I’ve spoken with many parents who’ve watched their child have an allergic reaction to food. There’s no doubt that it can be scary, especially if it’s a severe reaction. That said, especially if your child has no personal or family history of food allergies, do your best to keep fear in check. It might help to remember that research shows there is far greater benefit to introducing a wide variety of healthy, whole foods as early as possible than delaying foods for fear of allergies.

Allergy-free or not, keep it delicious and exciting!
Whether or not you keep your baby’s diet allergy free, it’s important to serve a wide variety of all-natural, flavorful foods. An eight-year study conducted by researchers at the University of Tennessee showed two important things: babies develop a taste for flavors that they initially reject after repeat offerings, and food preferences develop by 2- to 3-years-old. Together, these findings (reinforced by other studies) have led experts to agree that healthy habits for life form early by developing a taste for healthy foods prepared in delicious and interesting ways.

The bottom line
If your baby doesn’t have food allergies, go ahead and share your healthy foods with them. Don’t be afraid of herbs, spices, peanuts, strawberries and all the rest! This is the way babies around the world are fed, with much success.

If your baby is on an allergy-free diet, keep it interesting. Allergy-free does not mean bland and boring! Research your options and recipes. There are an ever-growing number of resources, from the practical to the gourmet, that show how manageable and delicious allergy-free cooking can be.

And, if you’re looking for inspiration, check out these three easy baby food recipes including mini muffins and barley with shitakes and spinach. Yum!

*Note: The report does not suggest solid food for babies before 4- to 6-months-old. Also, honey and any foods avoided during pregnancy (e.g., cured and deli meat, raw meat or fish, unpasteurized dairy) should be delayed until after 12-months-old for health—not allergy—risk.

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