One of the scariest times in my life was when my husband Jonathan and I found out that our daughter Alex has severe food allergies. The reaction itself (hives all over her body and a swollen eye) was scary enough, but learning to live with food allergies was just as scary. The only widespread treatment for allergies is avoidance, and food just isn’t something you can completely avoid! So we had to learn how to conquer our fears so we could safely feed our daughter in a way in which everyone was comfortable.
If you’re starting out on the food allergy journey, first know that you’re not alone. Here are just a few things to know when your child has been diagnosed with food allergies.
- Learn how to avoid allergens. The best way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid eating the food you’re allergic to. Sounds simple, right? Not so much. While it’s not difficult for a peanut allergic child to bypass a peanut butter sandwich or for someone allergic to dairy to turn down a glass of milk, it is much trickier to make sure those allergens aren’t included as ingredients in the foods you eat. And then another layer of complexity is added when you need to be wary of cross-contamination as well – when your allergen may not actually be in a food, but the food was prepared or produced in the same place as your allergen and came in contact with the food you want to eat.
These hidden dangers are why it is so important to read labels. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) has some good information on how to read labels.
- Build a support network. Navigating the world of food allergies is not something you can do alone. Your food allergic child will not be with you 24-7, and, as appealing as the thought may be, you can’t construct a bubble for him to live in.
This means you need to build up a network of people who understand food allergies, and who you can trust to keep your child safe – from relatives to teachers, babysitters, and friends, as well as people for you to talk to, those who are going through the same experiences and can share tips and even just provide a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. Emotional health is just as important as physical health. Here are some tips on how to build your support network:
- Move beyond your fear. When my daughter first received her food allergy diagnosis, I didn’t want to talk to other allergy parents because I was afraid that any new information would scare me more than I already was. Once I let go of that fear, I found that talking to people who understood what I was going through made me feel better. I felt less alone, and hearing their experiences made me realize that living a full life with food allergies is very achievable.
- Utilize technology. Join social media groups for parents of allergy children, visit websites like FARE that list regional support groups, and join organizations like AllergyEats where people share stories about successful restaurant experiences.
- Reach out to your child’s community. Volunteer at your child’s school. Talk to the parents of their friends. Share your allergy stories. You will find other parents of kids who have allergies who will be thrilled to commiserate with you – and who will have your back when you need support in dealing with food allergies outside your home.
- Learn to be your child’s advocate. When your child has food allergies, you need to become an expert. There is so much conflicting information out there about food allergies, much of it just plain wrong. So you need to learn the facts, and figure out the best plan of action to keep your child safe. Then you need to fight any trepidation, bite back your lingering shyness, and share that information.
Educate the people around you, the people who will be instrumental players in your child’s life. And make sure to educate kindly and be available to answer questions in a friendly manner. You need to get across the seriousness of food allergies, but if you come in with guns blazing, demanding over-the-top accommodations, you will make enemies. Remember, you want the people who will be keeping your child safe to be on your side.
Share some examples of how you’ve advocated for your child with food allergies.
Amy Schwabe is a freelance writer and the mom of two daughters, one of whom has severe food allergies. She blogs about her experiences raising a child with food allergies at www.milwaukeeallergymom.com and as a Kitchen Table Blogger at Metro Parent Magazine.