Time to take food allergy seriously

As a parent, giving your child the best possible start in life is your number one priority, and that includes giving them the right nutrition for healthy growth and development. However, when your child has a food allergy, this can be easier said than done.

The journey to a food allergy diagnosis in childhood and then treatment is not always quick or straightforward for families, with many experiencing sleepless nights and endless visits to the GP, leaving them feeling stressed and isolated. Healthcare professionals play a key role, supporting parents on the journey to diagnosis, providing regular advice and the right specialist nutritional products for their baby when they are needed. The good news is that most children will grow out of their allergy between the ages of 1-3 years old.

​Is it an allergy or is it an intolerance?

There is common confusion about the differences between a food allergy and a food intolerance. A food intolerance or sensitivity is not the same as a food allergy. Lactose intolerance is a common disorder where the body is unable to digest lactose (milk sugar) due to low levels of the enzyme lactase in the body.

Cow’s milk protein allergy is a serious medical condition and the most common childhood food allergy, usually seen in infants under the age of one; it affects up to eight babies in every 100.  Cow’s milk protien allergy is caused by an abnormal immune response to the protein in cow’s milk. Symptoms include: a rash, eczema, reflux, colic, diarrhoea, vomiting and sometimes babies just won’t feed.

Reactions can occur within two hours of feeding or can be delayed, manifesting up to 72 hours later. The symptoms can range significantly from mild through to moderate or severe and every child is different, which makes diagnosis and treatment particularly challenging. That is where doctors and/or dietitians can make a positive difference.  

What treatments are available for babies with cow’s milk protein allergy?

Mothers of infants with a cow’s milk protein allergy should be supported to breastfeed and provided with clear advice on how to avoid dairy in their own diet, replacing it with calcium-rich alternatives. Dietitians are always best placed to provide this guidance.

Where breastmilk is not available, infants and children with a suspected cow’s milk protein allergy will need a prescription for a specialist hypoallergenic formula* to treat their symptoms and provide the nutrition they need to grow. These formulas are prescribed by the GP on the advice of a specialist dietitian or paediatric allergist, and as baby grows and develops, they will start to be weaned on to dairy-free complementary foods. 

​Restricting treatment is a false economy

In recent years, the guidance around managing food allergies in the UK has improved thanks to new research, clinical guidelines such as iMAP and tools like the milk ladder to guide parents through the gradual reintroduction of dairy into their child’s diet, under healthcare professional supervision.

However, there are still instances where food allergy is not being taken seriously; access to specialist allergy milks can be a postcode lottery with several local health authorities actively considering restricting these products on prescription.

This may be to be due to a lack of understanding that these products are a medical treatment for cow’s milk protein allergy and how significantly this journey impacts families, as well as misconceptions and confusion about the differences between a cow’s milk protein allergy and lactose intolerance. 

Restricting access to hypoallergenic formulas is a false economy – doing so will inevitably lead to even more GP and hospital visits, increasing demand on resources in an already stretched healthcare system.

Giving a child the best possible future starts with giving them the best possible care. No one would deny a child with asthma an inhaler, so neither should children with food allergies be denied the medical treatment they need to grow and thrive. If we nurture babies’ potential now, we help to maximise their health for a lifetime.

*Breastfeeding is best for babies and is recommended for as long as possible during infancy. Breastfeeding provides many benefits to both mother and baby. It is difficult to reverse the decision not to breastfeed.