Ah, peanut butter. The sticky, creamy goodness that’s packed with protein, potassium, and powerful antioxidants is as yummy as it is nutritious. Slather organic peanut butter on crackers, banana, or celery, and you’ve got an easy, inexpensive, and healthy snack for your little peanut.
But for many children, peanut butter is a dangerous ingredient to be avoided at all costs.
That’s because peanuts are one of the 8 top allergenic foods that account for 90% of all allergic reactions in the US, according to WebMD. In fact, the prevalence of peanut allergy has doubled in Western countries over the last 10 years, and is the country’s leading cause of food allergy-related death, states HealthyChildren.org.
As a mom who’s struggled all her life with a severe, life-threatening allergy to tree nuts, I’m especially interested in how to safely introduce peanut butter and other allergenic food to my infant son.
Can I even introduce these ingredients safely in my home? Is it possible that early exposure can help him build up immunities to these foods? Or is it better to avoid allergenic foods like the plague until toddlerhood?
These are tricky questions every mom will need to consider for herself in conjunction with her pediatrician. Nonetheless, I delved into a ton of information from guidelines established by trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Mayo Clinic. What I found can help you determine how best to introduce peanut butter and other allergenic food to your baby.
The Basics on Food Allergies
A food allergy is an adverse immune reaction that occurs after exposure to a specific food, according to the CDC. Normally, the immune system protects us from harmful germs.
In the case of food allergies, one’s immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful. The immune reaction may range from mild to life threatening, making food allergies a particularly scary subject for parents.
Symptoms of Food Allergies
Before we address how you might introduce peanut butter to your baby, you should know what symptoms of peanut allergy you should watch out for, courtesy of Mayo Clinic. These symptoms usually appear within minutes after exposure
- Runny nose
- Skin reactions (for example hives, redness, or swelling)
- Itching or tingling in and around the mouth or throat
- Digestive problems (for example diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting)
- Tightening of the throat
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
What About Anaphylaxis?
For some people, a food allergy may result in a severe and life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. Early signs of anaphylaxis may appear like a mild allergic reaction, but grow more severe. Anaphylaxis is marked by some or all of these symptoms, as outlined by Mayo Clinic:
- Airway constriction
- Throat swelling that makes it difficult to breath
- A severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, loss of consciousness
If you believe your child is experiencing anaphylaxis, with trouble breathing or wheezing, swelling of face/lips, severe vomiting or diarrhea after eating, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Changing Attitudes Toward Introducing Allergens to Babies
Until recently, experts believed the best way to combat peanut allergy was to avoid products containing peanuts in the first years of life, according to HealthyChildren.org. As a result, in 2000 the AAP recommended that children with a high risk of peanut allergy avoid eating peanut products until age 3.
But in 2006 the AAP redacted that recommendation based on a groundbreaking new study conducted by researchers in the UK. These researchers noticed that the prevalence of peanut allergies amongst Jewish children living in the UK was 10 times higher than in their counterparts living in Israel. Because these two groups had a shared ancestry, researchers began to wonder what accounted for the discrepancy.
As it turns out, while Jewish children in the UK were avoiding peanuts within the first year of life, babies in Israel were regularly consuming a peanut butter-based snack food called Bamba.
This led scientists to believe that early exposure to peanuts actually reduced the likelihood of a peanut allergy. They tested their hypothesis by selecting 600 babies deemed high risk for peanut allergies, and giving half Bamba on a regular basis, while the other half avoided peanut-based foods altogether.
After five years 3% of the kids exposed to peanut products were allergic, while a whopping 17% of those not exposed were allergic.
HealthyChildren.org clarifies that this doesn’t mean every baby should be exposed to peanut butter immediately.
Unanswered questions include how much peanut needs to be eaten to prevent an allergy and for how long it needs to be eaten. But the study does make a solid case for the potential benefits of introducing peanut butter cautiously to your baby.
How Can You Safely Introduce Peanuts to Your Baby?
Based on the UK study, AAP has changed their guidelines for introducing peanut butter to babies, conceding that there’s little evidence for delaying the introduction of peanuts to prevent a peanut allergy, even for children who have a strong family history of peanuts (HealthyChildren.org).
The American Academy of Asthma Allergy and Immunology goes one step further, stating that once typical baby foods are introduced without a problem, allergenic foods can be safely given to infants between 4-6 months of age.
But don’t go rushing to feed your baby a big spoonful of peanut butter just yet. Here are some suggestions to consider when you’re ready to introduce peanut butter to your baby.
- Master non-allergenic foods first. Only incorporate peanut butter after the basic foods – rice, oat, vegetables, and fruit – have been successfully introduced. (Radio MD, a partner of the AAP)
- Control the environment. Give the initial taste of peanut butter at home (not in a restaurant or in daycare), so you know exactly what went in to the food. (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology)
- Observe your baby to know when he’s ready. Watch how your baby eats and be sure they’re developmentally ready to handle the texture of peanut butter. Ask yourself how well he’s feeding and how he’s accepting the foods you’ve already introduced. (Radio MD, a partner of the AAP)
- Closely watch your baby while he’s eating peanut butter. When feeding any sticky substance like peanut butter, keep a close eye on baby to make sure he doesn’t choke. (US News & World Report)
- Introduce only a small amount of peanut butter at first. If no reaction occurs, give it in gradually increasing amounts. (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology)
- Give only one new food (such as peanut butter) at a time. If no reaction occurs after first taste, continue to give your child small amounts of peanut butter for a period of 3-5 days. Don’t introduce other new foods during this time frame (Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology )
- If your baby is high risk, take him to an allergist or a pediatrician with expertise in allergies first. In cases where the child has eczema or other food allergies, or where there is a family history of food allergies, consult with your pediatrician first. Healthychildren.org suggests some pediatricians might recommend allergy testing or that the first taste happen at the doctor’s office rather than at home. (HealthyChildren.org)
A Final Word on Peanut Butter and Your Baby
Introducing the full range of solid foods to your baby is scary territory for a parent. You’ve already done the responsible thing by researching and planning how to introduce your baby to peanut butter.
As mothers, it’s our instinct to protect our children from anything that could harm them. That said, strong evidence suggests that attempting to protect your baby from exposure to peanuts may, in fact, make him more vulnerable to peanut allergy.
The latest research shows that peanut butter can and should be introduced to your baby’s diet safely under your doctor’s supervision.
For now, enjoy watching your baby taste a variety of foods for the first time and develop his palate. After all, you are helping him to experience one of life’s simplest pleasures.