Teaching your child to care for his food allergies is like creating a stepping stone path. Parents and caregivers take a highly complex topic (food allergy care and independence); break it down into incremental steps to meet the child where he/she is – physically, mentally, emotionally and developmentally.
My life with food allergies began almost 11 years ago with the birth of my son. He was vomiting before we ever left the hospital from delivery and I was told that was due to a poorly developed digestive tract. Fast forward 11-months later, after struggling with reflux, transitioning to baby and table food, unexplained hives and eczema and labeled as borderline failure to thrive; we finally had a diagnosis of food allergies to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame. I’ve learned a lot along the way, so I thought I would share some tips on how to steadily grow your child’s independence in an age appropriate way.
THE BEGINNINGS: Teaching Your Child to Care for His Food Allergies
Teach your child what he/she is allergic to using different methods.
Teaching your child to care for his food allergies means bringing it down to your child’s level. Place pictures, along with the words, of your child’s allergens onto a piece of paper and tape it to the back of the headrest in the car. This teaches a child in two ways (1) visually seeing the pictures and words and (2) verbally, by periodically asking, “What are you allergic to?” My son rattled off his list of allergens in no time. This is also a great tool for learning a home address and phone numbers. Google Images and Photobucket are great places to gather images.
A second way is to casually, and by casually I mean in a non-alarming way, introduce your child to his allergens while you’re at the grocery store. It’s important for him to see the allergen in the bag, e.g., these are peanuts. The jug on this shelf is cow’s milk. The cartons in this display case are eggs, etc.
Explain to your child why his food is sometimes different than what other people are eating.
It’s natural for your child to see certain foods and want to try them, even if they are unsafe. At a very young age, explain that certain foods are not good for him because it will make him sick, and then divert him to the large variety of foods that he can partake of. It’s important to focus on what one can have rather than what one cannot have, concentrating on the positive versus the negative. For example, instead of saying, “You cannot have that ice cream because you’re allergic to milk.” Say, “That ice cream does look delicious, but this soy ice cream is just as yummy and safe for you.”
At a young age, teach your child how to read labels because it’s confusing and takes some time to learn.
Reading labels is confusing for parents, let alone children. Show labels to a child early not only to instill the habit of looking, but learning the variety of names for an allergen, i.e., milk isn’t just milk, it’s casein, whey, etc. Your child will be able to help make educated decisions, along with your help, so that one day he will make well-informed decisions on his own.
In addition, it’s just as important to understand how to read manufacturing labels. Your child needs to know that anything “manufactured on shared equipment,” “in a facility that manufactures” their allergen or “may contain” labels are not safe food options. Moreover, just because a label does not disclose their manufacturing practices, doesn’t mean it’s safe, rather it requires a telephone call to the manufacturer to inquire about their manufacturing processes. Continue reading