Before I became the parent of three allergy-prone children, I assumed people with food allergies were simply born that way.
But it turns out, despite the food allergy epidemic now affecting 1 in every thirteen children, babies are usually born allergy-free. It is combination of their genes and their experiences that sets their immune system on a course towards allergy misfortune.
And don't just ask about food allergies. Consider other conditions such as eczema or environmental allergies, including hay fever. Babies with parents or siblings that have eczema or any type of allergy are at greater risk for developing food allergies. (Here's the single biggest thing you can do for a healthier gut.)
3. Examine your infant for eczema or dry skin
Babies, as one doctor told me, should have smooth, um, baby-soft skin. Any patches of dry, sandpaper-like or itchy and red skin should be taken as a possible warning sign of coming allergies.
4. Visit a pediatrician or allergist, if necessary
If your baby has severe eczema or a significant family history of allergies, you may want to have him evaluated by a doctor before introducing allergenic foods. But don't delay. Such high-risk babies may particularly benefit from early exposure (see next step).
5. Introduce common food allergens early
As early as possible, introduce common food allergens such as dairy, eggs, peanuts, all tree nuts, soy, shellfish, kiwis, bananas and whole wheat. Introductions can start as early as three or four months old, assuming the baby is developmentally ready for food. (That is, she can hold her own head up and seems interested in food.)
Continue feeding your baby allergenic foods regularly. Assuming the introductions have gone well, offer allergens at least twice a week. Intermittent feedings are not adequate as an allergy can develop during the break in exposure.
The necessary amounts vary for each food and are still being explored by scientists. The EAT study, which found a two-thirds reduction in food allergy development as a result of early and regular introduction*, asked parents to give their babies every week, across at least two feedings, a minimum of one egg, 1 piece of whole wheat toast, ¼ of a filet of fish, ½ cup plain full-fat yogurt, 3 rounded teaspoons of smooth peanut butter and 3 teaspoons of tahini.
(*In the per protocol analysis; that is, when parents and their babies managed to actually follow through with these recommendations, there was a significant reduction in food allergy risk.)
8. Combine allergens
Make it easier on yourself—and your child—by combining allergens. Kiwi-egg-smoothie, anybody? I've honestly fed this to two of my babies. I also make a mixed nut butter by throwing roughly 150 grams of all the tree nuts (cashews, almonds, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, macadamias and Brazil nuts) into a large food processor, topping them with a jar of both peanut butter and tahini, and blending until smooth. I store the excess in the freezer and use it almost daily for snacks and sandwiches, relishing the fact that my little ones are being protected from 10 allergies with each bite.
9. Up the 'yum' factor
It can be hard to keep your baby's interest as she accumulates birthdays–finding the right recipes (ones that appeal to a kid's sensibilities) can help you persevere. The only way I can get egg into my 6-year-old recently is by using one of my modified pancake recipes (each pancake contains nearly a whole egg.) And one of my sons, when he was two, suddenly hated anything nutty—until I introduced Mixed Nut Butter Cookies (a tweak on a peanut butter cookie recipe.)
10. Keep going until they are 5 years old—at least
The immune system has a critical window for learning that all foods are safe. It starts closing slowly in infancy and is mostly closed by late childhood. The science is very young, but some researchers think that if a baby is regularly exposed to allergens over their first five years, they will be allergy-free for life.