If your child has a high risk of developing a peanut allergy (such as severe eczema or an existing egg allergy), your pediatrician probably told you to keep peanuts out of sight until they’re at least three years old. Why? At that point, doctors thought introducing peanuts earlier would make children more allergic in the future. But new guidelines from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are now questioning that old rule.
Thanks to a new study, you can now let your kid try peanuts as early as four to six months of age. “It’s not something new to us as allergists, but to the community and to pediatricians, it’s a new recommendation,” Rolando Nunez, MD, an allergist-immunologist with the Miami Asthma and Allergy Associates of Florida. “The main thing is, regardless of if [the child] is high risk, low risk, or no risk, the introduction of peanut-containing foods early may help prevent or reduce the risk of children becoming sensitized and allergic to peanuts later on.”
[pullquote] If your doctor gives you the green light to give your baby peanuts, the best way is to start in small doses. [/pullquote]
Peanut allergies have been a growing problem in the United States since 1997. According to a national survey at the time, less than half of children were estimated to be allergic to peanuts, but parents were still advised to keep them away from the nuts until at least three years old. But by 2010, that figure had nearly doubled. Since the same epidemic was occurring in other countries like the United Kingdom and Canada, where parents of babies with high risk of developing peanut allergies were also advised to keep their children’s diets peanut-free during their first year, scientists wondered if avoiding peanuts was doing more harm than good to children’s future health. But statistics weren’t the only catalyst for their skepticism; it was also finding that children from other countries who ate peanuts earlier in life had a lower prevalence of peanut allergies than children in western countries.
Researchers from the United States and England teamed up to create the Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) study to find the best strategy for preventing peanut allergies in children. They split 640 children between the ages of four and 11 months old who qualified as high risk for peanut allergies into two separate groups. One group ate a peanut snack with three or more meals each week while the other group avoided them for five years. The study found that only 1.9 percent of the infants who ate peanuts early on developed the allergy by age five, while nearly 14 percent of children who avoided peanuts ended up being allergic to them later on.
The new guidelines were amended based on that study, but experts say it’s still best to consult with a doctor before introducing any peanuts to your child’s diet, no matter what their allergy risk is. If your doctor gives you the green light to give your baby peanuts, the best way is to start in small doses.
“You don’t want to introduce whole nuts or whole peanut butter from a spoon before four years of age because that can introduce a choking hazard,” Dr. Nunez says. He recommends giving children peanut butter purees or diluting peanut butter by mixing two teaspoons of water with two teaspoons of peanut butter. (Peanut butter is great for hiccups, too!) Some experts, like Dr. Nunez, hope this study will be replicated with other food allergies and produce similar results.