Food allergies and intolerances have become a hot topic over the past decade. Evidence suggests that allergies in general are increasing, and we’ve all heard the horror stories about babies suffering life-threatening reactions to foods. All in all, it can make weaning a worrying time. But while allergies are more common in children than adults, it’s still relatively unlikely that your baby will react badly to the foods you introduce when weaning. Here’s what you need to know before you start.
The safest time to wean
Although the Department of Health recommends waiting until six months before you start to wean your baby, many mums feel their child needs solids earlier than this. But before six months, some experts and health professionals believe your baby’s digestive system is immature, and that giving him food before this point may increase the likelihood of him developing an allergy. For this reason, the Government recommends trying to breastfeed your baby exclusively for the first six months or, if you’re not breastfeeding, aiming to stick to formula alone until this point.
New research has now suggested that babies can be safely weaned from four months, and that this may actually help to prevent allergies. However, as yet, the Department of Health hasn't revised its guidelines, so if you feel your baby needs solids before six months, speak to your health visitor or GP. Babies under six months should only be given low-allergy foods such as fruit, vegetables and baby rice. Never give your baby solids before 17 weeks.
Is your baby at risk of allergy?
Babies over six months old are unlikely to have an allergic reaction to the foods you offer during weaning. However, if you have a family history of allergic conditions such as asthma, eczema, hay fever or other allergies, it increases your baby’s risk of allergies, so you’ll need to be a little more cautious when introducing new foods.
The foods that most commonly trigger allergies in young babies and children are:
- Cow’s milk and other dairy products
- Sesame seeds
Always wait until after six months before introducing these foods.
Safely introducing new foods
When you’re weaning your baby, it’s best to introduce new foods one by one, so that if he has a reaction, you’ll know what the culprit is. Most health visitors now recommend leaving 24 hours between each new food, but if your baby is at higher risk of allergies, you may want to wait two to three days. You can, however, introduce a new food alongside a food that he has tried before.
Although you may worry about introducing potential trigger foods, there’s no evidence that avoiding these foods until later on will reduce your baby’s risk of developing allergies. In fact, some research suggests that babies who are given a wide variety of foods between six and 12 months are less likely to suffer from allergies, so although it’s best to stick to low-allergy foods like fruit, veg and baby rice for the first weeks of weaning, aim to introduce foods from other groups as time passes.
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Spotting the signs of allergy
Some allergic reactions to foods are severe, immediate and easy to spot; others may take their time to develop and can be harder to identify. But if your baby develops any of the following symptoms of food allergy, avoid giving him the suspect food again until you’ve spoken to your GP.
- Rash, particularly around the mouth
- Swollen lips, eyes and face
- Runny nose
- Watery eyes
- Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
- Worsening of eczema
- Tummy pain
- Unexplained crying
If your baby develops breathing difficulties, suddenly becomes pale or loses consciousness, call an ambulance immediately.