Allergies occur when your immune system responds badly to a ‘trigger’, which could be food, pollen, chemicals or a pet. Familiar, unpleasant symptoms include itching, inflammation, runny nose, rashes, sneezing and wheezing.
Unfortunately for you and your baby, allergies are on the rise – and experts remain puzzled about the precise causes. For example, up to 7% of babies less than 1-year-old have a food allergy, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), while around a fifth suffer from asthma and a fifth from eczema.
What’s the cause?
Although no single cause can be pinpointed, it’s a fact that smoking during pregnancy or around a baby increases the risk of allergy. Other factors include if a mum is overweight, Caesarean births and use of antibiotics.
There isn’t yet sufficient evidence to indicate whether food avoidance has an impact. The FSA says mums with allergies in the family, ‘may wish to avoid eating peanuts’ to lessen the allergy risk, and research from Holland also suggests that pregnant women who include nuts in their diet increase their child’s risk of developing asthma by more than half. The eating habits and allergies of around 3,000 women and their children were noted for 8 years from pregnancy as part of the research. Although the scientists behind the study claim it is too early to tell women to avoid nuts during pregnancy, they have called for more research. This has significant implications for the UK: Asthma UK estimates 1.1 million children are now receiving treatment for the condition.
Oddly, another possible factor is cleanliness. The argument goes that our use of disinfectants has created too sterile a living environment: consequently, our children fail to gain necessary exposure to nature’s microbes, which help build up a normal immune system.
Can I prevent my baby from having an allergy?
Although allergies are unpredictable, there is a strong genetic element involved. If you and your partner don’t suffer from allergies, your baby only has a 1 in 10 chance of developing an allergy. The risks rise if one parent has allergies (to 1 in 5) or both have them (to around 1 in 2).
Factors that seem to reduce the allergy risk include exclusive breastfeeding for the first four months and – possibly – probiotic supplements for expectant mums.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that probiotics in pregnancy can help reduce the risks of asthma or eczema,” says Nick Bennett, nutritional biochemist and supplements expert at Boots. “Not only can they help a mum’s digestive and immune system, but healthy bacteria in the gut has a knock-on effect, encouraging healthy bacteria in the vagina, passed on to the baby at birth.”
How likely is my baby to get one?
Some allergies, like hay fever, are rare in the very young. However, eczema – a skin inflammation characterised by dry, scaly and cracked reddened patches – is common. Both allergens and environmental factors can trigger symptoms, but careful monitoring can help you identify what causes flare-ups. Treatment options include emollient moisturisers to tackle dry skin and steroid creams to calm inflammation.
Also common is asthma – inflammation of the airways, leading to wheezing and coughing. “There’s no test available for babies, and wheezing doesn’t necessarily mean asthma,” explains asthma nurse Frances Guiney. “In general, the coming and going of symptoms, which are stronger early morning and late evening, are indicators that baby may benefit from asthma treatment.” This could include inhaled drugs or steroids.
Another important one to keep your eyes peeled for is an allergy to food. Symptoms can include rashes, itching, swollen lips and throat, wheezing, vomiting and diarrhoea. The term anaphylaxis describes an extreme response when reactions are severe or life threatening, but is thankfully rare in babies. A dietician can advise on restricted diets, and there are several infant formulas available, some on prescription.
Thankfully, infant allergies to food such as egg and milk are outgrown in around 90% of cases. In a third of children under 5 with asthma, the condition will be lifelong, in a third it will disappear and for the remainder, it will disappear but reappear later in life. Also, about two thirds of babies with eczema outgrow it by the age of 7.
Sue Hawker, 44, is mum to Zoe, 7 months, an eczema sufferer who’s on the mend.
“Within days of Zoe’s birth there were red, raw creases on her skin. Experts told me to see how it went, so she wasn’t diagnosed with eczema until her 6-week check, when hydrocortisone cream was prescribed.
Within hours of application, it improved tremendously, and daily use kept it well managed, I thought. Zoe has been taking part in LEAP Study (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy, conducted by Evelina Children’s Hospital, for babies under 11 months with eczema) and experts told me that it could improve further with a stronger preparation, and now her skin is beautifully soft.
I was advised to use non-biological washing powder, and, as I breastfeed, to reduce my dairy intake: these have helped too. GP’s and health visitors can’t always give you the time you need. But I’ve had good advice from other mums.”
Kirsty Haslam, 30, is mum to Jack, 7 months, who has an allergy to milk. She has had to make some tough dietary decisions.
“From birth, Jack produced full, green nappies – around 10 a day – and would only sleep for a few hours. He had a hard bloated tummy, and was losing weight. My health visitor referred us to a paediatrician, who at 3 months diagnosed allergy to cow’s milk proteins, which I was expressing in my milk. Soya formulas gave him constipation, so we used a prescription formula for babies with sensitive stomachs and I removed dairy and soya from my diet.
At 5 months, I restarted breastfeeding, and he thrived. I’ve been weaning him since 6 months, and prepare all of his purees myself. The dietary adjustments were tough – you need to be organised and make everything from scratch, including bread – but you do have a more wholesome diet. He’s to avoid wheat until 9 months, but I can re-try cooked soya and milk gradually at a year, to monitor the effects.”