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Baby eating fruit

The information presented here is intended for educational purposes only. Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for your child.

Children’s food allergies and food intolerances can be very confusing and a source of concern for parents.

Carefully introducing solids during weaning is one important way you can help prevent strong reactions to food, especially for infants with a family history of a food allergy.

If your child has an allergy or food intolerance, be sure to tell the early childhood service or school so that adequate plans can be made. You should also consider meeting with a dietitian to plan a safe and nutritionally adequate diet for your child.

Food allergies

Food allergies are immune reactions to the protein parts of individual foods. The most common foods that can cause allergies (allergens) are: peanut and other nuts; egg; milk; fish; sesame; wheat; and soy.

Children with eczema can develop allergies in the first year or two of life. They can have quite acute reactions, often the very first time they are exposed to the food.

Accidental exposure to some foods can cause a dramatic reaction called ‘anaphylaxis’, which can quickly become life-threatening and requires emergency first aid treatment.

Typical symptoms are: rapidly spreading welts; swelling; breathing difficulties; and, in extreme cases, allergic shock and collapse.

Effectively managing the allergy involves completely avoiding the offending food(s).

Food intolerance

Food intolerances are caused by the irritant effects of certain food substances. These can be natural food components – such as salicylates, amines or glutamate (natural MSG) – or they can be additives – such as preservatives, colourings or flavourings.

Reactions to these substances often develop gradually from the effects of foods in the child’s diet.

Unlike allergies, food intolerances are rarely serious or life-threatening. In young children, symptoms can include: irritable, hyperactive or erratic behaviour; sleep disturbances; an upset stomach; loose motions; feeling sick; skin rashes; a blocked nose; and fussy eating behaviour.

Because food intolerances act by chemical irritation of nerve endings, rather than through the immune system, regular allergy tests do not help identify them.

In the most obvious cases, parents can tell which foods make their child sick. Often, however, systematic dietary testing under the supervision of a specialist and an experienced dietitian is needed to identify the offending food substances.

Managing food intolerance

There is no one ‘right’ diet for children with food intolerances. Once you have identified the source of the intolerance, it is important to reduce the daily intake of the offending chemicals from all the relevant food sources.

Unlike allergies, completely avoiding specific foods is only necessary in rare situations.

The dietary changes you need to make may be quite simple – for example, cutting out fruit juices or processed foods – or they may involve significantly modifying your child’s diet, depending on his or her level of sensitivity.

If a child’s diet is significantly restricted, or if there is a complex problem with food allergies as well as intolerances, you should seek advice from a dietitian with experience in children’s nutrition to help plan a healthy diet that will meet your child’s nutritional needs.

Carers should also be aware of a child’s food allergies or intolerances and find out what kind of reaction might occur if he or she has too much of a certain food.

Some foods like milk (and other dairy products), soy or wheat can cause either allergies or intolerances in children.

In these circumstances, carers should ask the parents to provide a medical certificate that describes the exact nature of the problem and the degree of care that needs to be taken with those foods.