Boston Babies serves as a “one-stop-shop” for urban families looking to raise children in the heart of the city. Whether you visit the blog for pertinent posts, follow boston_babies via twitter, or peruse Facebook for the next update, Boston Babies supplies its readers with activities taking place in the city, enrichment classes to enroll your little one in, recipes to explore with your family and boutiques to hit during your next shopping spree.
While those are just a few of the many “social” topics featured, Boston Babies also provides families with information on best practices, from breast feeding, to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ views on media for infants and toddlers. Raising a family in the city is a special experience that has its share of challenges as well as its advantages, and allows for interesting, engaging, and diverse family experiences. However, it is still essential to balance such social and extracurricular articles with a foundation based on knowledge, which is why Boston Babies also covers those “hot topics” that often keep parents up at night, even after their baby is to bed.
One of the many concerns that plague parents these days is the growing number of children with allergies. While some of the guidelines and restrictions today may seem drastic, if they are not strictly followed, the repercussions for children with allergies could be life threatening. It is important to be mindful and conscientious of the very real concerns of other parents and work together to provide a conducive, safe and nurturing environment for everyone’s children.
Featured Mom, Sarah Williamson of Brookline, shares her personal and professional experiences on raising a child with allergies. Whether you do or do not have a child with allergies, hopefully the below post will be both comforting and informative.
Sarah Williamson, Brookline
How the “Food Allergy Epidemic” has Impacted My Family
When I found out my 10-month old daughter was diagnosed with life-threatening allergies to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, tuna and sesame, there were many phases I went through emotionally. While it was overwhelming, my first priority was to learn about this ‘allergy epidemic’ and how it would impact her and my family moving forward. She is now 18 months old and the journey continues…
Personal and Professional Experiences: Sharing Story with Fellow Families
I aim to share my story from my double lens as a mother with a child who has allergies*, as well as a School Social Worker, LCSW who can offer both personal and professional insights about the challenges of raising a resilient child with this added factor.
I want to reassure parents who have children with allergies that they are not alone. It is very common to have emotional and physical anxiety concerning this issue. In addition, (without intent to sound preachy!), I want to share my experiences for those of you who do not have children with allergies in an effort to educate on best practices. Even if your little one does not have allergies, it is helpful to learn about this growing “epidemic” so you can best support fellow friends and family members and be conscious of certain food restrictions during play dates and other social gatherings.
Modeling Behavior for Baby
With my LCSW background, I am aware of the fact that primary caregiver modeling is one of the most important factors in shaping a child’s experience in the world. This means how I model situations involving food with friends and family has the possibility of shaping my daughter one way or another. She could become a fearful child, who thinks of the world as a dangerous place. If Mommy always seems on hyper-alert and nervous when we’re around food in public, a child can easily be shaped to feel anxious as well. The child could also have feelings of guilt or shame about her allergy if friends and family make a public display of martyrdom (as well-intentioned as it may be) about their dietary changes when she is around.
Building Resiliency for Baby
On the other hand, I am also aware of the research that shows my child can build an inner reserve of resiliency, learning how to overcome this adversity of being an ‘outsider’ anytime food is present. She will learn early how to stay safe in difficult situations, be assertive about her needs, and possibly show more empathy to others who are ‘different’ from her. What an important lesson for a girl as she grows up! Research shows that children who have to deal with adversity in their youth, with the safety net of supportive adults with whom they are securely attached, actually have a better natural reserve of resiliency to draw from as they grow up. A child who has to learn to advocate for herself- in this case, to speak up because she could die if another child brings in those almond joys on the bus ride- has a lot of extra responsibility, but I see it as a source of strength. Children with allergies are not victims.
Healthy Habits for Baby
The other happy note is that I think my daughter has had a ridiculously healthy diet thus far because, ironically, of the limitations. There aren’t a lot of instant/processed foods she can eat, so everything has been homemade and whole foods, so she has been remarkably healthy thus far.
Forming Friendships; Encouraging Empathy
Speaking of important lessons, I think for those children who become friends with a child who has allergies, it is a great opportunity for developing empathy. Empathy is often listed in research as the most important social skill for a child to learn to avoid many negative pitfalls (such as becoming a bully, or a bystander who doesn’t speak up for a victim). While it is tempting to feel annoyed (I myself have secretly rolled my eyes at parents of children with allergies before I became one!) about your child having to eat less exciting allergen-free homemade baked goods for a school birthday party for example, this is an exciting opportunity for positive modeling of empathy. In our current American society of caring more about the individual than caring about the greater community, I see these little moments as opportunities for showing your child that another child matters to you, and therefore should to them, equally.
Personal and Practical Guidelines for Parents
Partnering my values as a parent and my professional background, and based on what is age appropriate for her thus far, my husband and I have come up with the practical guidelines below. Does this mean these suggestions should be right for you? Not necessarily. But I do suggest that in addition to putting healthy food before children that they can safely eat, it is important to consider the developmental aspects of raising your child, as it relates to their allergies and how this may or may not alter their experience of the world around them.
- Be Assertive
Speak up to the caregiver at the playground if their child is eating a PB&J on the equipment, and ask them politely if they can eat it off the equipment, explaining why, but not in an overly anxious or rude way (see above about modeling behaviors).
- Be Proactive
When planning play dates, ask if parents would feel comfortable if you brought the snacks to the gathering so that it’s more relaxing, safe and fun for everyone.
- Be Conscientious
If you are hosting a gathering and you know one the of invitees is allergic, but you want to provide the snacks, then ask where to get allergen-free products.
- Be Informative and Communicative
Send a nice group email to family members/friends in advance of vacations or holidays to remind them of safety protocol so you don’t have to repeatedly explain things once there. (Often times there are changes to allergies- different ones pop up, or there are changes to the safety plan, i.e. giving Benadryl vs. an EpiPen based on symptoms- so while it might seem repetitive if you’re on the receiving end, please know it is necessary.)Have this protocol posted near where your child eats, and in his/her diaper bag for babysitters.
- Be Ready to Share When You Play–Not What’s on Your Plate!
At this toddler stage I eat what she can eat at home, but am very clear as practice for her later in life that she cannot eat off my plate. She has her food and I have mine. We have fun pointing to my food and then to me, smiling and saying “Mommy’s food!” and then doing the same for hers.We have to do the same thing for the other child in our nanny share, which isn’t the best for learning “sharing”, but frankly adults don’t often share each others’ food at work, for example, so as long as she gets sharing with toys, I’m OK with that. I do order what I want at a restaurant even if she’s allergic to it, and so far she is accepting these limits that it’s ‘Mommy’s plate’. We’ll see how it goes!
Additional Information on the Food Allergy “Epidemic”
Allergy-Free Friendly Restaurants
There is a lot out there because it’s becoming so widespread, but here are just a few starters:
- Whole Foods
- Trader Joes
- Panera (They have a binder if you ask for it that lists their products’ ingredients)
- Papa Razzi
- Legal Sea Foods
- Not Your Average Joes
“Gluten-free” is not the same as “Allergen-Free.” If a bakery or restaurant says gluten-free, you have to ask about their other food practices.
Here’s a funny article I found for anyone who has stuck their foot in their mouth regarding food allergies—a sense of humor is key!
Thanks for reading and I welcome any comment or questions!
*In keeping with social worker values I prefer the child-centered, strengths-based term “child with allergies” or “child who has allergies” even thought it’s longer, instead of “allergic child.”