As a child you are often given food as a treat or a reward for good behaviour. Lollies, cakes, biscuits…all kinds of yums (drool). The tendency for adults to reward good behaviour with food is widespread in our culture (and let’s be honest, it’s not the best way to develop healthy eating habits). This is of special concern to parents of children with food allergies and intolerances.
When children are outside the care of parents or caregivers, they are at the mercy of other adults with good intentions who may not always have all the information required to keep them safe, or who may in some cases disregard what parents/caregivers have told them because they think they know better.
It’s a difficult situation for parents, they can’t be with their children all the time. Children need to be free to attend day-care or school, visit their friend’s house or stay with family. Parents of allergy or intolerance-affected children are usually extremely vigilant about informing their child’s carers about their food requirements. They need to be, because children are easily influenced by their peers, and do not have an equal voice when discussing food options with an adult. Younger children are especially high risk because they don’t have the language skills to be able to explain what they can eat.
Even with careful vigilance however, there are still a large number of mistakes being reported in food allergy and intolerance communities on a regular basis. I’ve heard many examples of family members giving ‘treats’ to children even though they’ve been asked not to do so by the parents. These well-meaning adults think they are doing the right thing, but by ignoring the wishes of the parents they have inadvertently harmed the child’s health.
I recently received an email from an angry parent whose gluten-intolerant child was given baking by a teacher, despite the teacher having repeatedly been told that the child was gluten intolerant.
It is frustrating to hear again and again the number of people who think that anaphylaxis is the only true response to food allergy or intolerance. This is not the case. And this confusion is part of the reason why I believe so many people continue to ignore the wishes of parents, because if they can’t see the reaction to the food. It can’t be real, can it?
Whether through wilful ignorance or an honest mistake, it is the child and caregivers/parents who suffer the effects when allergy-free diets aren’t adhered to. A reaction to food could be mild or it could be life threatening. It could also be immediate or take hours to appear, and the recovery time can sometimes take weeks or even months.
A reaction to food can include anything from severe stomach pain and diarrhoea, to hives, behavioural changes or even anaphylactic shock and death. In the case of coeliac disease, some people have no visible reaction at all, but the invisible damage to the gut and the effect on the immune system is still extremely serious.
But what about children who don’t really have an allergy or intolerance but aren’t allowed to eat certain foods?
There are children who don’t have a food allergy or intolerance but are off certain foods for a medical reason. It is not uncommon for children with ADHD or autism to experience improved cognitive function and behaviour on an allergy-free diet. They aren’t necessarily allergic or intolerant but the food still has an effect on their wellbeing.
It doesn’t really matter why a child isn’t allowed to eat certain foods. If the parent has asked not to feed their child something, then it’s up to the adults who are looking after that child to respect the parents’ request.
I don’t want the child to miss out though
If you’re in a position where you’ll be caring for a child with allergies or intolerances, check with the parents. Usually they can either provide treat foods or tell you what is safe for their child to eat. It does take a bit more planning, but that way you can keep the child safe and they won’t miss out. Treats don’t necessarily have to be junk food either – there are lots of options that are tasty and delicious for all ages but don’t contain loads of sugar and other nasties.
A little bit won’t hurt though will it?
Yes, sadly, just a small amount of an allergic food source can trigger reaction. For some children, this could be just a few crumbs – eek!
How do I know if my child has a food allergy or intolerance?
Children often don’t have the language skills to adequately describe what’s going on with their bodies, and the signs of a food allergy, coeliac disease or food intolerance aren’t always what you’d expect. Here is a list of just some of the signs to look out for:
• Failure to thrive (not growing at a normal rate, struggling to put on weight)
• Nausea, vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, stomach pain, bloating
• Reflux or colic
• Eczema, rashes, hives and other skin disorders
• Sneezing, coughing, runny nose
• Frequent distress and crying
• Fatigue or weakness
• Aching joints and muscles
• Itchy throat, mouth, tongue, swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, dizziness, loss of consciousness (these are signs of anaphylaxis and require urgent medical attention)
• Low iron (anaemia)
• Behavioural difficulties, irritability, cognitive issues
The symptoms of a food allergy or intolerance can also be a sign of other health issues, so it’s important to see a doctor before changing your child’s diet. If the parents have food allergies or coeliac disease it is possible that a child will also have these conditions, but they may also be perfectly healthy.
There are more than just genes at play when it comes to allergies and coeliac disease. Particularly with growing children, it’s important not to remove food sources unnecessarily.
How do I keep my allergy/intolerant child safe?
• Inform any adult who will be looking after your child of their allergies/intolerances. It may be necessary to put this in writing if it’s a big list of food items that cause a reaction or if there are multiple adults looking after your child e.g. a classroom with several teachers.
• Teach your child from a young age how to read food labels, the consequences of eating the wrong food e.g. ‘it will make your tummy sore’, what foods are safe for them and how to confidently and politely explain their food allergy/intolerance to an adult.
• Provide packed food if you’re not sure what will be on offer.
• For toddlers who can’t speak for themselves, it may be appropriate to dress them in a top that states the allergy or says ‘don’t feed me’ (many parents have found this to be effective when going to events with crowds). Arm bands can also be purchased with allergy warnings.
• Make the time to explain to family and friends what your child’s food needs are and why they can’t eat certain things. Their buy-in will help ensure the child’s safety in your absence.
Christina Stewart is passionate blogger, photographer and cafe haunter, who has spent a lifetime dealing with multiple food allergies and intolerances. Her website gluteygirl.com is packed with education, advocacy, tasty recipes and inspiration for foodies and fellow sufferers. Packed with information on all things gluten-free, dairy-free and low FODMAPs, there are also plenty of interviews, cafe reviews, recipes and mischief. www.gluteygirl.com