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Teaching Your Little Ones About Their Food Allergies

Jillian is a mom who has food allergies and years of personal experience to share with the greater food-allergy community.

If you have a child with food allergies like I do, doesn't this otherwise beautiful picture make you worry just a little bit? It only highlights how important it is to teach our young children about their food allergies. And while we obviously can't count on them to take on the responsibility of protecting themselves, it is our job as their parents to teach them how to stay safe.

Learning Should Be Gradual and Age Appropriate

Now that my son with food allergies is 7 years old and has successfully been through a few years of school, I am feeling especially grateful for the time we spent teaching him about how to manage his allergies in an age-appropriate way.

He was diagnosed at just 8 months of age with milk and egg allergies, and unfortunately, the list of dangerous foods has only grown for him. We began our education on day 1, and have adjusted the amount and type of information we share as we learn, and as he grew, understood more, and became more verbal.

This does not mean holding them responsible when they are too young, but gradually building their awareness, knowledge, confidence, and ultimately, their self-advocacy.

It's Never Too Early To Start

Just like babies have to be exposed to language to comprehend and to learn how to speak, our kids need to gradually see and hear about their allergies and how to stay safe. They observe and take in everything you do and say, so take advantage of this time and talk about why you do what you do.

Narrate as you read food labels, wash/wipe hands, and cook certain foods separately, explaining why. Use the terms "safe" and "unsafe" to describe foods, and explain why. Over time, it will stick. One of the first phrases my son said to me was "check label, Mommy" before I would open a new package! He also at an early age would point to things we were eating and simply ask, "safe?" I will never forget how much that touched my heart to see such a little toddler learning how to protect himself.

"Safe" Foods & The Use of Generic Terms

Confusion can easily happen among adults, but especially among young children. This is why we need to be careful about how we refer to products. I can't stress enough to use the term "safe" when describing foods and products to our very young children.

One great example is the term "butter". I would always go out of my way to show my son the packaging for the dairy-free "butter" spread that we use and refer to it as his special safe butter, because if he saw or heard about any other kind of butter (the dairy kind) from family or friends, I wouldn't want him to assume it is safe for him and reach for it. This can apply to any product, such as "milk", "bread", "cheese", etc. Ask about the safe brand's colors, and point out any unique pictures or logos to help it stick.

One great way to teach about this is to take a young child to the store and carefully show them the section of butter or whatever the food category is (being careful not to allow them to touch or inhale the actual allergens). Ask them to point to the safe products and the unsafe products. It can be a fun little game! Then reinforce them to ask you to always check the label, since we know that our brand is not always guaranteed to have the same ingredients, and that we must read every label, every time.

If you're not comfortable doing this at the supermarket, the internet can be used to pull up pictures of foods. There are even apps available to create your own coloring pages using saved pictures. The library is also a great resource for finding picture books about certain food groups. Regarding peanuts and nuts, it is wise to distinguish between shelled and unshelled since they appear different. It is also recommended to teach about the different types of nuts (for example almonds versus walnuts), rather than just referring to them all as nuts.

Another idea is to show your child or talk about the most common types of foods that can potentially contain the allergens. For example, common foods that can contain peanuts are chocolates, ice cream, granola, and baked goods, to name a few. Play a guessing game, for example, which food do you think has peanuts? This can even be expanded to personal care products, which can surprisingly contain all kinds of major allergens. Imagine the surprise of my then 3 year old when I told him hand soap can contain milk and nuts!

Only Take Food From Trusted Adults

The number one most important rule to teach your young child is to NEVER share food or take food from anyone else but you or your other designated, trusted adults. Teach them to say "no thank you" and to feel comfortable with it. Related to food sharing, this extends to drinks, but also to cups, straws, plates, utensils, and napkins. Sometimes color coding, labeling, and /or using certain character or themed cups and plates can help the child not confuse his or her food and drink with someone else's.

Remind your child that those trusted adults have to check every food and drink to make sure that it's safe. As the child gets more verbal, teach him/her to always ask the designated trusted adult to check the label before eating any unopened package of food/drink or item that has not been vetted yet. The trusted adult can reinforce this each time by narrating, "Oh, I see this is a new box of cookies that we haven't checked yet. Let's read the ingredient label to make sure that they are still safe for you!" The key is to avoid them being dependent upon that person to always know to check the label. At some point, they need to remember to do this on their own.

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Ingredient Label Reading & Sight Words

Our pre-school aged kids can and should be exposed to sight words. Show your child what the ingredient panel looks like and what are some of the words that we look for that would make the product unsafe to eat. Do a simple word find with words cut out or even just on a sheet of paper. Have them find and put the allergen words in the unsafe pile with a frowny face, or color them red. Kindergarteners and 1st graders can practice writing the words. Not only does this teach them what the words look like, but it also helps them remember what the foods are that they need to avoid.

Staying Involved

In general, keeping our kids involved in the day to day management will only benefit them in the long run. Recruit their help reading labels, going grocery shopping (if you're comfortable with this), preparing food together, and (depending on their age) either carrying or remembering to bring their epinephrine everywhere they go. Reward them for their efforts in helping to keep themselves safe. This will shed a positive light on their abilities to be responsible.

Speaking Up

Explain the symptoms and instruct your child to tell or sign an adult if he/she isn't feeling well. When a reaction or symptoms do happen, talk about them so they can learn to recognize the symptoms. Show them what hives can look like and talk about how they feel. Reward them for coming forward and speaking up to an adult when they aren't feeling well. When my child complains about something bothering him, I calmly go through my symptom checklist with him to determine if anything else is going on that might be allergy-related. This helps teach what the symptoms of a reaction are. Show them the epinephrine auto-injectors, and practice with the trainers at an early age so that your child can get familiar with them (yet keeping them out of reach until the appropriate age recommended by your allergist).

Staying Positive

It is so important that we stay calm and positive throughout all of this modeling and teaching. While food allergies can be very stressful and emotional for us as our children's caregivers, we must stay positive. I try to highlight the aspects that I am most grateful for: the effectiveness of epinephrine when given promptly, the availability of food options out in the marketplace now, how much healthier we have been eating as a family, and the increase in awareness, understanding, and accommodations in the greater community.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Jillian Erin

What has worked for you? Please share any other ideas you have to teach our children about their food allergies! Feel free to share this with a friend, family

Jillian Erin (author) on January 14, 2018:

I know exactly how you feel, MommaStu. It's a constant learning process. I try to think of each incident as something that shapes us and makes us stronger, even though through our vulnerability we sometimes feel the opposite. Think back to where you were on day 1 compared to now, and how far you've both come. My son is close in age to yours. Every day that we get through without incident, I thank God and I give myself a little pat on the back. We have to take it day by day, and find support where we can. You're doing a great job, and he has the one mother that can do this! Hang in there!

Mindy Studer from Sunny South Florida on January 14, 2018:

Thank you for this. I, too, am a food allergy mom. My son has anaphylactic reactions to eggs and a minor intolerance to soy. It is SO difficult. All the time. Stressing all the time. He is 8 and we discuss it often... unfortunately though it seems to have gotten worse. We made 3 ER trips in 2017 because of unintentional contact with egg/egg product.

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