A new British study, published in September in the journal JAMA, suggests that offering foods made with eggs and peanuts earlier lowers the risk of babies developing an allergy to these foods.
Food allergies affect up to 8% of children age 5 and under, and up to 4% of adults. Most leading food allergies — cow milk, egg, soy, and wheat — tend to be the ones children are most likely to outgrow.
My oldest daughter outgrew her dairy allergy by 6 years old, but my middle daughter is still dairy-free at nearly 9 years old. A few years ago, there were several other students in her class lined up to get a glass of soy milk in the lunch line — today, she’s the only one left dairy-free. Besides an autoimmune condition complicating matters, however, there’s still hope that she someday might be able to enjoy a scoop of ice cream: Up to 80% of children with a milk or egg allergy will outgrow the condition by age 16.
So, food allergies aren’t cut and dry (for example, I developed an allergy to eggs in my 30s.), and that’s likely why the recommendations of how to lower a baby’s risk of developing a food allergy keep changing.
This latest study encourages parents to offer a taste of eggs and peanuts to babies as young as 4 months old — which is 2 months earlier than when is recommended to start solids at all, according to the AAP and WHO.
Researchers found that giving eggs to babies between 4 and 6 months old lowered their risk of an egg allergy by 46%. Giving peanut butter to babies between 4 and 11 months was linked to a 71% lowered risk of developing a peanut allergy.
Currently, 5.4% of the population has egg allergies. Early introduction, according to the study, could result in 24 less cases for every 1,000 people.
With peanuts, where 2.5% of the population has allergies, early introduction could avoid 18 cases for every 1,000 people.
Researchers also evaluated fish allergies with early introduction, as well as gluten intolerance and celiac disease with early introduction, but the evidence was lacking.
It stands to reason that introducing highly allergenic foods earlier could help reduce allergies, especially with breastfed babies because the immune properties of breastmilk could help mediate a reaction. The same would not hold true for formula-fed babies, though.
Introducing solids at 4 months, however, seems a little young — given that most babies don’t show food readiness signs until at least 6 months old. Instead, I would stick by the clear recommendation to breastfeed as much and as long as possible, in order to reduce the risk of allergies.
My family has a lot of allergies, including to various foods. But my son, who was breastfed until self-weaned at 3-1/2 years, is the only person in the family without a food allergy — or, come to think of it, a drug reaction or environmental allergy. It could be a coincidence, but the research supporting breastfeeding as an allergy-reducer is compelling. And continued breastfeeding is definitely what I would recommend to moms concerned with the development of allergies.