Can I lower the chances of my child having a food allergy?

Unfortunately, based on the evidence we have, the answer is “probably not.”

Food allergies aren’t quite every parent-to-be’s worst nightmare, but they’re certainly nothing any new parent wants for their child, and advice about how to avoid them is often contradictory at best. Part of the reason it can be hard to get a straight answer about how to lower your baby’s chances of developing food allergies is that the medical community is not entirely sure what exactly causes them.

It’s understood that allergic reactions happen when the immune system malfunctions. This means it sees a typically harmless protein as an invader, and attacks it. What is not clear is what causes the immune system to malfunction, so while it’s fairly non-controversial to recommend that breastfeeding might be a step to take against food allergies, because breastfeeding has been proven to boost a baby’s immune system, other recommendations might be harder to back up.

Early exposure or extended avoidance?

Medical advice about whether it’s better to avoid eating potentially allergenic foods during pregnancy, and when to introduce allergenic foods to babies has been in flux for the last two decades. It was only in 2000 that the American Academy of Pediatrics began recommending that parents keep their babies from eating allergenic foods until they were at least a year old, but in 2008, the AAP changed its recommendation, saying that preventing children from coming into contact with allergens through food after six months, or through maternal diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding had not been proved to prevent allergies.

In fact, some studies, including a 2003 study following the development of Jewish children in the UK versus Jewish children in Israel, who eat peanut products as a significant part of their early childhood diet and have a much lower rate of food allergies in general and peanut allergies in particular, suggest that earlier exposure to common allergens could actually help to prevent allergies. There hasn’t currently been enough research to confirm that early exposure is helpful in preventing allergies, especially early exposure that happens through maternal diet, but current research tends to lean in that direction. The AAP’s official recommendation is that exposure in the womb won’t cause allergies, and that pregnant women should eat the same amount of common allergens that they usually do, instead of trying to cut out important food groups, like dairy, and risking upsetting the nutritional balance of their diets.

  • Brody, Jane. “As Peanut Allergies Rise, Trying to Determine a Cause.” Blogs: Well. The New York Times. February 3, 2014. Web.
  • “Food allergies and baby.” March of Dimes. March of Dimes Foundation. 2017. Web.
  • Park, Alice. “Can Pregnant Moms Give Their Babies a Peanut Allergy? Maybe.” Healthland. Time Inc. November 1, 2010. Web.
  • “Food allergies in babies.” NHS Choices. January 9, 2015. Web.
  • Pongdee, Thanai. “Prevention of allergies and asthma in children.” AAAAI. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. 2017. Web.
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