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Food allergies and intolerances in babies

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Toddler with raspberries in a bowl

Babies are more likely to develop allergies  if there's a history of eczema, asthma, hay fever or food allergies (known together as atopy) in the family.1

If your baby has a family history of these conditions, breastfeeding your baby exclusively (breast milk only) for the first six months will help to lower their risk. If you're not breastfeeding, ask your GP for advice on what kind of formula to give your baby. 

When you start introducing solids (weaning), introduce the foods that can trigger allergic reactions one at a time so that you can spot any reaction. These foods are:

  • milk 
  • eggs 
  • wheat 
  • nuts 
  • seeds 
  • fish and shellfish 

Don't introduce any of these foods before six months.

Lots of children outgrow their allergies to milk or eggs, but a peanut allergy is generally lifelong. 

Children and peanut allergy

Allergies to nuts, nut products and some seeds affect 1-2% of people. Your child has a higher risk of developing a peanut allergy if they already have an allergy (such as eczema or a diagnosed food allergy), or there's a history of allergy in their immediate family (such as asthma, eczema or hay fever).

If this is the case, talk to your GP or maternal and child health nurse before you give peanuts or food containing peanuts to your child for the first time.

If you would like to eat peanuts or foods containing peanuts (such as peanut butter) while breastfeeding, you can do so, unless you're allergic to them or your health professional advises you not to.

Avoid giving your child peanuts and foods containing peanuts before the age of six months. Foods containing peanuts include peanut butter, peanut oil and some snacks. Don't give whole peanuts or nuts to children under five years old, because they could choke on them.

Read food labels carefully and avoid foods if you're not sure whether they contain peanuts.

How will I know if my child has a food allergy?

An allergic reaction can consist of one or more of the following:

  • diarrhoea or vomiting 
  • a cough 
  • wheezing and shortness of breath 
  • itchy throat and tongue 
  • itchy skin or rash 
  • swollen lips and throat 
  • runny or blocked nose 
  • sore, red and itchy eyes 

In a few cases, foods can cause a very severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) that can be life-threatening. Anaphylaxis usually develops suddenly and gets worse very quickly.

The symptoms include:

  • feeling lightheaded or faint 
  • breathing difficulties – such as fast, shallow breathing 
  • wheezing 
  • a fast heartbeat 
  • clammy skin 
  • confusion and anxiety 
  • collapsing or losing consciousness 

There may also be other allergy symptoms, including an itchy, raised rash (hives), feeling or being sick, swelling (angioedema), or stomach pain.

If you think your child is having an allergic reaction to a food, seek medical advice. 

Don’t be tempted to experiment by cutting out a major food, such as milk, as this could lead to your child not getting the nutrients they need.

Talk to your health visitor or GP, who may refer you to a registered dietitian.

Food additives and children

Food contains additives for many reasons, such as to preserve it, to help make it safe to eat for longer, and to give colour or texture. 

All food additives go through strict safety testing before they can be used. Food labelling must clearly show additives in the list of ingredients, including their name or "E" number and their function, such as "colouring" or "preservative".

A few people have adverse reactions to some food additives, but reactions to ordinary foods, such as milk or soya, are much more common. 

Processed foods are more likely to contain additives and high levels of salt, sugar and fat. Therefore, it's best to avoid eating too many of these foods.

Is it a food intolerance or food allergy?

A food intolerance is not the same as a food allergy. Here's how you can tell the difference: 

A food allergy:

  • is a reaction from your immune system (your body's defence against infection) - your immune system mistakenly treats proteins found in food as a threat 
  • can trigger typical allergy symptoms, such as a rash, wheezing and itching, after eating just a small amount of the food (these symptoms usually come on rapidly) 
  • is often to particular foods – common food allergies in adults are to fish and shellfish and nuts, and in children to milk and eggs as well as to peanuts, other nuts and fish  
  • can be serious 

A food intolerance: 

  • doesn't involve your immune system – there is no allergic reaction, and it is never life-threatening 
  • causes symptoms that come on more slowly, often many hours after eating the problem food 
  • only results in symptoms if you eat reasonable amounts of the food (unlike an allergy, where just traces can trigger a reaction) 
  • can be caused by many different foods

Further links

1 Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.