A recent news story aired regarding the increasing incidence of food allergies and allergy-related illnesses evident in children today. Apparently, the newscaster stated solemnly, this increase has doctors and experts alike baffled. What is the cause and can we find a cure, they asked themselves. Perhaps we can formulate a vaccine that will reduce this problem until we can find a cure. Unfortunately, this is in all seriousness. Fortunately with some common sense and a wholistic approach we, as parents, can certainly take the prevention of potential allergy development into our own hands.
Preventing allergies and intolerances begins with well thought out pre-conception care, long before the child is born. While it is important that both parents-to-be ensure they are fit, healthy and adequately “nutrient-rich”, it is equally important that we address any allergies or intolerances we may have ourselves prior to conception. This is wise to do even if you are not consciously planning to conceive. Addressing these issues before you conceive is vital as it may not only be impeding nutrient absorption on your own part, it will also be one less challenge you pass on to your child. A pregnant mother donates everything in her body to the blossoming bub within. This includes vitamins, minerals through to antibodies for immunity. In particular the antibodies produced against maternal allergens. If the mother-in-waiting falls pregnant by serendipity and continues eating foods that she may have a sensitivity to, either known or unknown, each time an immune response occurs those antibodies transfer through the placental bloodstream to the baby. However, all is not lost. With sensible substitution (under the guidance of a qualified naturopath or nutritionist) suspected allergens can be eliminated during pregnancy. When the child is born, this physiological exchange between mother and child continues in a beautiful picture of symbiosis, with breastfeeding being the all-important but often missing link. The child’s newborn digestion is still somewhat immature. After all it hasn’t had to rely on these processes in the womb. The newborn stomach has a near neutral pH, and pepsin (the enzyme that breaks down protein) is typically low for the first several months. This means that proteins tend to escape breakdown in the newborn stomach and are absorbed directly into the intestinal lumen (lining). This lack of digestive ability is designed to ensure the increased survival of antibodies in the mother’s milk, including those in colostrum. Breast-fed infants are therefore more resistant to intestinal infection than formula-fed babies. Babies receive antibodies both before and after birth. Coupled with this inability to break down proteins, it has also been postulated that the baby is born with an intentional “leaky gut” enabling these proteins to pass through the intestinal lining.1 While food allergies may be passed on during the pregnancy, allergies or intolerances may also develop due to either one or a combination of factors such as vaccination, antibiotic use, and/or introducing solids too early. While it is beyond the scope of this article to argue the case against vaccination, it can be summated that the neonatal immune system up till two years is immature2. It is largely incapable of dealing with a massive onslaught of live or “attenuated” virus including the usual cocktail of neurotoxic adjuvants. As a whole, it must be remembered that the best “immunisation” a child will ever get is through extended breast-feeding. In 1974, Dr John W Gerrard wrote, “we presumed that the function of breast milk was little more than the provision of nourishment. We now know that breast milk also provides effective protection, more effective than antibiotics, against certain common enteric pathogens, and that it can also be expected to provide relative freedom in infancy from allergic disease which is a growing problem of modern feeding habits.”3 The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently recommended that children be breastfed until at least two years of age. This is because this exchange doesn’t stop at the immune enhancing qualities of colostrum, but rather, extended breastfeeding adapts with the changing needs of the growing child.4 The use of antibiotics in infancy (often to counteract side effects of vaccines) can also lead to the development of food allergies by stripping the baby’s gut of the fragile colonisation of beneficial gut flora as well as damaging the gut environment. Although the mechanism of how this occurs is poorly understood, it is known that beneficial gut bacteria has been shown to be transferred in breast milk. While vaccination and antibiotics certainly increase the risk of potential allergies, the early introduction of solids, in particular cereals and other animal products, can bear significant contribution to poor health and on-going health problems. A baby’s digestive ability is unable to breakdown proteins in order to process the mother’s donated antibodies. If foreign proteins are fed to the infant the proteins can escape digestion and due to their ‘foreign’ status can generate an immune response. It is said that when a baby gets his first teeth, it is a sign that the gut has ‘sealed’ and the digestive ability has somewhat normalised. I must admit that I erred on the side of caution and waited until my son was nine months old and had four teeth, before introducing solids. Even then I did not introduce cereals or animal products until 18 months. He is now a happy, healthy, energetic 20 month old, with breast milk still his main staple. So, when is the best time to introduce solids, free of any potential allergy development? In a recent La Leche League newsletter, Margaret Kenda offered the following advice. “Your baby can tell you just when supplemental food is a very good idea and when the time has not yet come. Here are some signs that your baby is ready, physically and emotionally:
- Your baby can sit up, with support. Your baby has control of his head and neck.
- Your baby has plenty of saliva to begin digestion of food.
- Your baby has the ability to transfer food from the front to the back of the mouth. Your babys throat muscles have developed a stronger, more mature swallowing ability. Babies are born with a tongue-thrust reflex, so that their instinct is to push food outward and forward. Thats survival instinct, so that the baby will not choke on food or other substances. This instinct disappears after about four months, when the baby has developed other options, such as chewing and swallowing.
- Your baby has a tooth or two. This should be at five to seven months old.
- Your baby is capable of refusing food. The ability of turning away and indicating a negative decision does not develop until the baby is about five months old.
- Your baby likes to imitate other people. Your baby is showing distinct interest in other peoples food. Your baby reacts with interest to the sights, sounds, and odours of cooking.
- Your baby can reach and handle and perhaps try to taste or eat food, toys, and other objects.
- Your baby is not ill and has no rashes, including teething.”5
Contrary to popular belief and unwanted advice, introducing solids won’t make your baby sleep better at night, make them grow faster, or provide superior nutrition. These are some simple common sense guidelines to think about in order to prevent potential allergies in your children, particularly if there is a family history. I encourage you to take responsibility by researching issues that affect your children’s lives, not only now but over the long term and for generations to come.