If you have a hunch that more kids have allergies than 20 years ago, you’re not wrong. Childhood allergy rates have increased significantly in recent years–and they now affect a whopping 1 in 10 children.
So…should we listen to the wives tales about avoiding peanuts during pregnancy? Or should we be eating more of the common allergen?
Leading women’s health and fertility dietitian Stefanie Valakas is joining us on the blog to separate myth from fact, and tell you what you really need to know about childhood allergies.
Allergen exposure during pregnancy & breastfeeding
We can make a start on minimizing the risk of allergies in babies during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
A few decades ago, the mainstream advice was to avoid potential allergy-causing foods during pregnancy and breastfeeding. What is emerging from the evidence now is that actually, the opposite seems to be true if we want to reduce the risk of allergies in babies.
First of all, avoiding particular foods during pregnancy has not been shown to help reduce infant allergies. In fact, eating a variety of allergens including peanuts, milk and wheat has been shown to reduce the incidence of food allergies, asthma and eczema in children
And the same goes for breastfeeding mothers, too. Mothers who regularly ate peanuts (and introduced peanuts as a food to their baby before 12 months) had the lowest incidence of peanut allergy in their children compared to those who avoided peanuts while breastfeeding or delayed introducing peanuts as a food.
Unless the mother has a food allergy herself, there is no reason to cut out allergenic foods during pregnancy (the only exception being food that isn’t safe for pregnancy, like raw fish).
Introducing solids is key for preventing childhood allergies
One of the scariest parts of introducing solids is the possibility of an allergic reaction. But don’t stress: even though this can be frightening, the key to minimizing food allergies in babies is this early exposure to food!
Allergens should be introduced usually between 6 and 12 months of age, if you begin to introduce solids at 6 months. The key foods to introduce are:
- tree nuts (e.g. almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts)
- cow’s milk
- shellfish (e.g. prawns)
Once you have established that your baby can safely eat an allergenic food, try to offer it regularly to maintain their tolerance. The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy recommends to offer your baby these foods around twice a week.
If you have concerns about your baby, speak to your child’s doctor and/or paediatrician. They may recommend you work with a paediatric dietitian to help plan baby’s first foods.
What about probiotics?
The term “probiotics” actually refers to a huge variety of microorganisms, and they all have different potential effects! Each strain of probiotics is unique, so when we look at the research we need to look at the exact strain that was tested and the effective dosage and period of time required to see a benefit, too.
When it comes to preventing allergies in babies, a few particular strains of probiotics have shown some possible benefits, namely Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (“LGG”) and Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 (“LHN001”).
Try easy-to-eat greek yogurt (check the label for “live and active cultures”) as well as Kefir.
How about Vitamin D?
An adequate level of vitamin D may play a role in the prevention of childhood allergies. Research conducted in Australia showed that low vitamin D levels in parents and in babies have both been associated with higher rates of food allergies. And since 1 in 4 adults are vitamin D deficient…this could be affecting you and your future little one!
Vitamin D is important to the regulation of our immune system. When we don’t have enough vitamin D, our immune system may respond differently, including having an increased incidence of allergic reactions.
We get most of our vitamin D from the sun–“it’s the sunshine vitamin”. A small amount can be found in some foods including egg yolks and fish. Mushrooms left in the sun can also provide vitamin D, as they absorb the sunlight for us!
For some people, a vitamin D supplement may help achieve optimal vitamin D levels for mother and baby. However, start with getting your levels checked and then the appropriate supplementation can be discussed with a dietitian.
A number of studies have looked at whether fish oil during pregnancy, breastfeeding and infancy has been able to prevent allergies in babies.
Fish oil is rich in the omega-3 fats: EPA and DHA. So far, the research has not produced consistent results, with some studies showing a possible benefit and others showing no effect.
While we are yet to see consistent results for the prevention of allergies, fish oil provides other benefits during pregnancy and breastfeeding–especially good amounts of DHA, which supports the development of the baby’s brain, eyes and nervous system. If you enjoy seafood, enjoy 2-3 servings of oily fish per week.
Got all that? Here’s the TLDR:
- Eat a varied diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding, do not avoid foods unless there is another reason to do so e.g. mother has an allergy, or food safety reasons.
- Introduce the key allergenic foods to your baby (in an age-appropriate way) between 6 months and 12 months of age. Maintain exposure to allergenic foods by regularly offering them to your baby.
- Maintain healthy vitamin D levels during preconception, pregnancy, breastfeeding and in baby.
- Consider a probiotic supplement with the strains LGG and/or LHN001.
- Enjoy 2-3 meals that include fish each week (especially oily fish) and/or consider taking a fish oil supplement (an EPA/DHA supplement).
In search of more of the latest research, nutrition guidance, and tasty recipes? Check out the free Baby2Body App.
Stefanie Valakas is a leading women’s health and fertility dietitian and nutritionist in Australia. She specializes in preconception nutrition, and is passionate about helping couples who are trying to conceive optimize their diet–and chances of conceiving! She helps women facing PCOS, endometriosis, hypothalamic amenorrhoea, thyroid issues, and early menopause.