Allergy Proof Your Kids — Not Your House
The best way to protect a child from allergies may be what sounds like the worst way
Banning peanuts, pets and other potential allergens may seem like the best way to prevent children from becoming allergic to them. But recent research suggests there may be a more effective way — "allergy-proofing" the child, not the house.
Exposing a child to certain allergens at an early age (within limits) actually may de-sensitize her and keep her allergy-free, the new thinking goes.
''The jury is still out on a lot of this," says Vivian Hernandez-Trujillo, MD, director of allergy and immunology at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami. "There needs to be more research." However, much of the evidence that exposing a child to a potential allergen can protect her from becoming sensitive to it is strong. Some findings even have triggered changes in recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), she notes.
Here’s what research shows so far about preventing allergies in children by exposing them to the very things they’re most likely to become allergic to.
Cracking the case on peanut allergies
Over the past decade, peanut allergy has doubled in Western countries. It's now the number one food allergy. For many years, the AAP advised not giving kids at risk of peanut allergy (those with a family history of peanut allergy, for example) any food that contained peanuts before age 3.
Then new research found that children as young as 1 who ate peanut products had fewer peanut allergies. The findings were so compelling the AAP reversed its position in mid-2015. According to the AAP, it may be beneficial to introduce peanuts to babies at high risk of peanut allergy between 4 and 11 months old.
That's not a
one-size-fits-all suggestion; get specific guidance from your
child's pediatrician or allergist before exposing him to peanuts, Hernandez-Trujillo says.
Here kitty, kitty
Some evidence suggests that kids exposed to pets early in life are less likely to develop allergies. A small recent study may help explain why. Researchers in Finland compared infants in families who had dogs, cats or rabbits to infants in pet-free homes. It turns out the kids in the homes with pets were more likely to carry bacteria in their guts, called Bifidobacteria, normally found in animals. The researchers theorize these changes to the babies' gut microbiomes might in some way alter their immune system, protecting them against allergies.
Other research has found, however, that children exposed to dogs or cats during their first four years actually had more pet allergies than kids not exposed.
Preventing allergies before birth
What an expectant mother eats while pregnant may affect whether her child will have allergies. Norwegian researchers found that women who ate milk-based products containing the probiotic lactobacilli during pregnancy reported fewer allergic symptoms in their children when they reached the age of 3. About a fifth of those moms also gave probiotics to their children once they reached 6 months old.
In another study, researchers found that probiotics in milk form helped to prevent allergic dermatitis , an itchy skin condition, in children.
The power of breastfeeding
When researchers reviewed 89 studies that looked at breastfeeding, asthma and allergies, they found babies who were exclusively breastfed (meaning they were never given formula) for the first three or four months of life had a lower risk of asthma and allergic rhinitis.
In fact, one of the reasons cited by the AAP for recommending exclusive breastfeeding for six months is the possible reduced risk of allergies in babies born to families with a history of them.
A word of caution
None of this advice is to suggest parents should start mixing peanut butter into infant cereal or adopting a kitten as soon as they bring a new baby home from the hospital. For parents or parents-to-be trying to decide what to expose their child to, consulting with a pediatrician or allergist is essential, says Hernandez-Trujillo. Testing can sometimes be done, for instance, to see if a child could tolerate exposure to a particular allergen.