Talking to your child about food allergies

At this point, you have a lot of control over different parts of your toddler’s life, whether it feels like it or not. From setting up their playdates to hiring their babysitters, picking out their daycare and preparing their dinner, in a lot of ways, you get to make sure that no allergens cross their path.

That’s not always going to be true, though – the older they get, the more independent they're going to be. That means that, if your child has been diagnosed with a food allergy, as they grow, it’s going to become more and more of their job to make sure there are no allergens in their food.

That means that right now, when they have learned enough language to know what you’re saying to them, but is still figuring out a lot of the ways they think and feels about the world, is a great time to start teaching them about how to keep themself safe from allergens.

Explaining and narrating 

As you shop at the grocery store, and as you cook, or pack your child’s lunch before daycare the next day, you can teach them a lot about what they need to do to keep themself safe from allergens just by telling them what you’re doing, and explaining why. Something as simple as “We’re going to read the ingredients on this before we buy it, to make sure it’s not made with peanuts,” or “This recipe asked for milk, but milk isn’t good for you, so we’re going to use this soy milk instead,” might feel like overkill, but just hearing it can start to make an impact on how your child thinks about food.

Restaurants are also an environment where it can be good to model the things they are going to do when they are older – like ask if the dish they want to order has anything they're allergic to in it. For common foods, like dairy or peanuts, it’s important to ask even about dishes that might not seem like they’d have the allergen in them, because they can be included unexpectedly.

Talking to your toddler about talking to other adults

One frustrating truth is that not all adults take allergies seriously, which is why it’s important for your little one to be able to advocate for themself about their allergies from as early an age as possible. Talking to your child about how they need to be responsible for making sure anything they eat that you haven’t packed or prepared for them is safe is a great place to start.

If your child has an emergency response plan, or carries medication with them, it’s important to talk to them about telling teachers or adults where they are. It’s also a good idea for them to carry an emergency response plan with them. An effective emergency response plan includes:

  • What your child is allergic to
  • The severity of the allergy
  • Whether epinephrine (or an Epi-Pen) should be given if an allergen has definitely been eaten, even if there are no symptoms, or if it should be given if there is any chance it might have been eaten, if symptoms are showing
  • What medication your child has been prescribed, and how it should be given to them
  • Whether or not to call 911 or emergency services

It’s going to be years before your child can be fully responsible for their food allergy, but the sooner they get started, the safer they will be.

  • Jordan C. Smallwood. “All About Allergies.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, October 2016. Web.
  • “Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Emergency Care Plan.” FoodAllergy. Food Allergy Research and Education, Inc, 2016. Web.
  • “Sending Children with Allergies to School.” PBS. PBS. 2003-2016. Web.
  • “Talking to Children About Their Food Allergies.” FoodAllergy. Food Allergy Research and Education, Inc, 2016. Web.
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