Author: Lauren Williams
Date: August 18, 2023
My oldest son Hunter is allergic to peanuts, eggs, sesame, dogs, cats, and pollen.
We first discovered his peanut and egg allergy when he was 4 months old. Starting at 6 weeks old, he was covered in eczema from head to toe. It was not going away, so we visited a pediatric dermatologist who recommended we visit an allergist. As allergies do not run in our family, we didn’t know that eczema could be a sign of an allergic reaction in infants. It was shocking when the allergist confirmed he was allergic to peanuts and eggs and that we had to start carrying an EpiPen for him. I had been breastfeeding and we made the decision to switch to formula.
I don’t think I truly understood what life with food allergies was going to be like. I remember the overwhelming guilt from thinking I’d been causing him discomfort from breastfeeding (now two kids later I understand and support the notion that “fed is best." When we were starting solids, I had to learn to not let family members feed him unless we knew exactly what was being served. I had to learn how to read every label. We adjusted what we ate around him (no more peanut butter or scrambled eggs) because he was so little and we were afraid of cross-contamination. We had to avoid sharing our food at restaurants, to always ask what ingredients were included and what oil was being used, and on and on. We were lucky that Hunter’s daycare provides all meals so we didn’t have to worry another student would bring in peanut butter for lunch. After 5 years, I can proudly say he never had an allergic reaction at school. It was difficult but we were in a good groove.
Then one day, we noticed hives after giving Hunter some hummus with lunch when visiting my parents. We immediately gave him Benadryl (per his action plan; every person’s action plan is different). A few minutes later the hives were gone and he was fine. A visit to the allergist confirmed an allergy to sesame, the fastest-growing allergen. This was slightly harder to navigate because at the time, food labels weren’t required to boldly highlight sesame like other major allergens. Then we discovered the dog allergy because he would break out in hives whenever we’d visit my mother-in-law, who has a black lab. That skin test also came back positive for allergies to cats and pollen. We updated everyone–school, grandparents, friends–and kept going.
When we had our second son, Parker, I was nervous he would also have food allergies, and maybe different ones. When we were ready to give Parker solids, we had him tested for the top 9 food allergens. He tested negative so was allowed to try more foods. We were advised to carefully provide him with the foods Hunter was allergic to. We tried peanut butter first, then brushed his teeth and carefully wiped his hands to avoid cross contamination with his brother. It was a new territory to navigate: how to balance Hunter having a sibling who ate his allergens. (*Note: not all families are okay with having a child’s allergens in the house. We did under the advice of our allergist).
When Hunter started getting invited to birthday parties, we faced new challenges. Some parents offer to purchase “allergy safe” foods, but unless it’s a brand we’ve eaten before, we’re more comfortable using our own food. Also, imagine if he did have a reaction at a party–I wouldn’t want that guilt sitting with another parent or child. So, we come prepared with a lunchbox for the meal and his own cupcake for dessert. We have safe go-to recipes, like one my aunt sent me for “Wacky Cake” (made popular during the Great Depression and WWII due to milk, egg, and butter rations) along with my mom’s homemade frosting.
Finding a babysitter has also been difficult. We only leave him with people we trust to be able to assess a situation, determine if he’s having an allergic reaction, and react appropriately. We’re lucky my parents and sister are willing to babysit 99% of the time we need to travel overnight. We also found some local babysitters who are trained in EpiPen, and now that Hunter is older and knows what he can and cannot eat, we’re starting to become comfortable doing parent date nights.
Now Hunter is starting Kindergarten, which brings with it another layer of feelings on top of those that every parent experiences at this milestone. There’s a new fear that comes with sending him “out into the world” independently more than before. The extra meetings with his wonderful school nurse and teachers have helped, but we still feel a worry that is hard to explain. We never want to hinder other people’s rights for eating foods they like, but knowing my son could casually come in contact with something that could make him sick - or worse - is scary. We’re prepping him on how to eat lunch and snacks safely.
I was explaining to Hunter that I was writing this article and asked him if he wanted to share anything. He told me that it’s scary but mom and dad make it okay. I asked if he’s ever felt left out from things his friends have gotten to do. He said no. And honestly, as long as he’s safe and happy, that’s all any parent can really ask for.
You did not eat anything during your pregnancy to cause this (my first question to the allergist).
New allergies emerge, pre-made food recipes change, new situations pop up. But you adapt, you become more educated, and you do the best you can for your child to have a safe, “normal” childhood.
You can batch-make recipes (RAISE is a great resource for this–see below for link) to pull out as you need.
For example, I make and freeze batches of cupcakes to pull out as necessary for birthday parties so these parties are not a hassle.
Research restaurants before you travel so you don’t have to look while hungry.
It’s exhausting. There is no break from making a meal.
It doesn’t make you a bad parent to get upset if all you want to be able to do is order in a pizza and that’s not an option for you.
Doctors, friends, family–they will help support and educate you in so many ways.
Online support groups can be amazingly helpful (though sometimes you have to take others’ advice with a grain of salt).
You’re not expected to do it all alone. You can’t do it all alone.
You are their safe place.
Teach them what they’re allergic to and to not accept food from anyone unless they know what’s in it.
Teach them what allergic reactions and symptoms look and feel like and how to use an EpiPen on themselves (at the appropriate age of course).
Get a diagnosis (for us, the sequence was: pediatrician, then pediatric dermatologist, then allergist)
Educate yourself: (a) how to use EpiPen/Auvi-Q, (b) what symptoms look like, (c) how to prepare foods safely
Join support groups online
Educate your child (when age appropriate)
Work with your doctor and school on plans and medication
There are also therapies to desensitize children from allergies. We have not gone down this route yet. It is a commitment; he would need to eat a small amount of peanut powder in a food every single day for the rest of his life. While this may be a small price to pay to potentially eliminate the anaphylaxis there are many pros and cons we're currently weighing.
I want you to know that any initial fears you may have, any feelings of being overwhelmed, we also had. I still do some days.
You are not alone in feeling these feelings both at the beginning and with each new phase. The mental exhaustion is real. The fear is real. The anxiety is real. But you can do it. There are so many people out there who will be understanding, or who have a food allergy themselves, or who know someone that does.
Find yourself a good group of doctors you trust. Join the Facebook groups and other support groups out there but remember each case is different. Also, don’t be too judgemental of people’s responses or how they handle situations.
You’ll learn to always have the EpiPen and Benadryl on you. You learn to plan. Call restaurants before you travel to plan where you can eat.
When traveling, look at options to rent homes with kitchens so you can cook your own food. There are amazing resources out there–take advantage of them.
Enjoy Life Foods
Made Good Foods
No Whey Chocolate
There is a letter from a food allergy parent to her child’s classroom at an open house that is amazing. It explains the fears & anxieties of sending your food allergy child to school. I haven’t been able to find it but it might circulate around with school starting up again soon.
Lauren Williams lives in Fairfield, CT with her two sons, Hunter (5) and Parker (3).
My favorite thing about being a mom: Watching my kids become themselves, learn new things, and find their interests. Their first "I Love You" is one of my favorite moments. I love how mom hugs can still solve most of their problems at this age.
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