Staying Safe With Food Allergies and Intolerances

Welcome to the September 2013 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Staying Safe
This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and tips about protecting our families. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.
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When our oldest son was a baby, his food allergies and intolerances were a nuisance for us.  They were a thing that we had to be quite vigilant about if we wanted him to be comfortable enough to do things like sleep.  But when he became a toddler, his food allergies and intolerances suddenly became more than just a nuisance.  They became a scary possibility of their own.

You see, Walter would become quite ill, and would literally sleep in only the barest of sessions when he would get a food on his “no list” – dairy, soy, or corn, and gluten added at age 2.  All of these being common foods, the possibility of him coming into contact with them was incredibly high.  And one of my worst fears when he was toddling but not yet highly cognitive was that he would wander away from us somewhere and someone would take that sweet face home with them – and feed him all of the typical kid fare.  I truly worried that someone sick enough to take him would not hesitate to do away with him by some foul means after a few nights of not sleeping.  I often considered making him a shirt (or 3) that said, “I don’t sleep!” to wear when we were out of the house.  Luckily, we kept a close eye on him and he is still with us!

On a more realistic note, I had to teach this very young child how to avoid the foods that would make him so miserable, when he didn’t yet understand what all that meant.  It was a daunting challenge and I’m finding myself in a similar place again with a barely turned 2 year old.

Everyday situations can turn into a nightmare for us when: A mom at a playdate hands a toddler a bowl of cheese cubes to eat while the kids play.  A patient in a doctor’s office waiting room is eating Goldfish crackers while they wander around the room.  A child at a group event offers my child a cookie.  An elderly lady at a garage sale offers my children some candy.  A child roaming the grocery store eating a snack cake is rubbing his hands over the railings at the check stand.  To most people, these would hardly be things worth noticing.  For me and my children, they are like little sirens going off all around us, every day.  The most insignificant contact with any of these foods can have many members of our family sick for weeks.

Learning to navigate these scenarios with a toddler, then a young preschooler, and now a kindergartner was by turns challenging and amazing.  There were the heart stopping times when we would walk into a playdate and all of the other children there were walking around with food, and I didn’t know whether to ask for all of the food to be put away and the toys scoured for crumbs, to walk right back out the door with two crying children who were looking forward to seeing their friends, or to just pretend like there was no problem and pray that we wouldn’t get too sick.  There were the one or two times in a group setting that I thought Daddy was watching Walter, and Daddy thought Walter was with me – and we found him dipping into something on the snack table that was completely off limits for him.  There was the time that we were cross contaminated by Play Doh on the table at lunch time, that a sitter didn’t think to clean up.  There was the mystery of the recurrent contamination that turned out to be glue that hadn’t been properly washed up before eating.  Basically, there were so many opportunities for a little man to eat something that made him sick, before he knew better.  All of which made us realize that teaching him to take care of himself when it came to foods was of paramount importance.

We approached this mountain in a few different ways.

1. Starting when he was very young, we used the same phrase every time we talked to him about foods that were off limits to him.  We would always say, “That food will make your belly hurt.”  The consistency helped him to learn about all of the foods he shouldn’t touch in the same way that telling him “hot” helped him to learn about all things hot that he shouldn’t touch.  As he grew older, we were able to discuss allergens, intolerances, and specific foods further.  But in the beginning, we kept it simple.

2. We kept our house free of foods he couldn’t eat.  This helped him to identify what was OK in a situation that was different.  If a food looks foreign, the child is typically more hesitant to eat it.  Plus, it didn’t build up a sense of yearning and resentment over the things that everyone else gets to eat and Walter doesn’t.  We still keep our house free of foods that we can’t all eat (with the exception of our milk – Walter can’t tolerate the only milk that Elliott can, so we have to keep 2 separate types in the house).

3. We did our best to keep him in sight at all times when there was a possibility of foods that might make him sick – which was pretty much any time that we were either out of our own home or around other people.  It wasn’t always possible, especially when there were communication snafus, but we did our best.

4. We only leave our boys with people who understand and take seriously their food needs.  This means that no matter how well meaning a friend or family member is, if they do not thoroughly grasp the limitations of our diet, our children do not stay alone with them.  As strict and difficult as this may sound, we have been thoroughly blessed with friends and family members who have gone far out of their way to learn about our restrictions and support us in feeding our children to keep them safe.

5. We taught our children to ask a parent before accepting food from anyone else – ever.  This was a much easier first step than teaching the children to question the giver about the ingredients of the food.  At 3 years old, Walter couldn’t tell you whether a cookie had soy in it or not.  But he could tell you that he needed to ask Mommy before he could have that cookie.

6. As time went by, when Walter would get sick from a food, we would point out how he felt, and that it was from the food he had eaten – and precisely which food it was if we knew.  We really helped him to make the connection between what he ATE and what he FELT.  It was a huge leap that, at first, we weren’t sure he would understand.  But, he is a smart little man and it did not take him long before he completely understood that some foods made him feel yucky – and he didn’t like it.  This seemed to help to empower him, and give him a sense of stability in the midst of feeling so badly.  Knowing that there was a reason that he felt badly, and that there was a way he could prevent it, really seemed to help him.  He has learned to cope with those feelings much better as he has aged, and he has learned that he would rather not eat the foods that make him feel badly.

7. When he was old enough to remember a rote list of his allergens, we taught him to recite them.  He may not know what they were in, but at least he could tell someone who could read the label for him.  Or, you know, if someone took him from a store, he could at least tell them he had food allergies.  I slept much better after that.

8. When he was old enough to start understanding about different foods, I began teaching the kids about nutrition and where the foods came from.  Along with this, I taught the kids about what foods made Walter sick.  We talk a lot about how different people eat different things – with no judgement involved.  He was quickly able to learn that it was OK to eat almost all raw fruits and veggies, so long as they didn’t have dip, but that he should avoid foods that he couldn’t identify, or that weren’t in their simplest form.  He learned that just because he could have some breads and cookies, that didn’t mean that he could have all breads and cookies.

9. We taught the kids about OTHER things that contain the foods on our no list.  Things like Play Doh, glue, medicines, candies, drinks, and candles may not cross your mind when talking about food allergies, but they can all contain problematic ingredients.  Teaching Walter that he needs to take care around these things not to ingest them was a very important step in helping him to care for himself.  We taught him how to clean up after using these things, if they are things that he uses (like glue), or to avoid them if they are things that he simply shouldn’t touch.

10. We taught him to be on the lookout for other situations where food spreading around could make him sick.  He learned that sharing crayons with another child who is simultaneously eating a processed snack full of cheese and gluten is almost certain to make him sick.  He’s learned that touching all of the candy bars at the checkout lane is not the best plan of action, in case a wrapper has opened or leaked.  He has learned that when we eat in a group, he needs to make sure that the other kids don’t have food on their hands and faces when they return to playing.  He has learned that it is completely OK to ask someone to wash up, or to help him wash up, if he is concerned about them making him sick with their foods.

It really did not take long for our children to master what was OK and what wasn’t OK for the boys to eat.  Sofi has always done a great job of helping to police foods for Walter, even when he was too little to understand for himself.  He knew as a 2 year old that he could ask Sofi if something was alright for him to eat, and I don’t think she has ever steered him wrong.  Now, both of the kids are great at helping Elliott to discern what is OK and what is not.

And, Walter is great at knowing for himself what food situations are OK and which are not!  He will nicely say, “No thank you.  I have food allergies,” when he is offered a piece of candy or other snack by some well meaning person.  He has flat out stood in front of the toys and told other children, “You need to go wash your hands before you can touch these.”  Just today, Elliott offered Walter a drink of his hemp milk and Walter responded, “No thank you, Elliott.  That milk will make my belly hurt.  You drink your milk and I’ll drink my almond milk!”  In three short years, he has gone from standing on a bench scarfing down tortilla chips at a party to politely asserting himself to tell people of his own needs to stay healthy.  I couldn’t be more proud of him!

And he reminded me today that he is “the best thing since gluten free bread!”
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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Hobo Mama and Code Name: Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:
(This list will be updated by afternoon September 10 with all the carnival links.)

  • Stranger Danger — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama shares her approach to the topic of “strangers” and why she prefers to avoid that word, instead opting to help her 4-year-old understand what sorts of contact with adults is appropriate and whom to seek help from should she ever need it.
  • We are the FDA — Justine at The Lone Home Ranger makes the case that when it comes to food and drugs, parents are necessarily both their kids’ best proponent of healthy eating and defense against unsafe products.
  • You Can’t Baby Proof Mother Nature — Nicole Lauren at Mama Mermaid shares how she tackles the challenges of safety when teaching her toddler about the outdoors.
  • Bike Safety With Kids — Christy at Eco Journey In the Burbs shares her tips for safe cycling with children in a guest post at Natural Parents Network.
  • Spidey Sense — Maud at Awfully Chipper used a playground visit gone awry to teach her children about trusting their instincts.
  • Watersustainablemum explains how she has used her love of canoeing to enable her children to be confident around water
  • Safety without baby proofing — Hannabert at Hannahandhorn talks about teaching safety rather than babyproofing.
  • Coming of Age: The Safety Net of Secure AttatchmentGentle Mama Moon reflects on her own experiences of entering young adulthood and in particular the risks that many young women/girls take as turbulent hormones coincide with insecurities and for some, loneliness — a deep longing for connection.
  • Mistakes You Might Be Makings With Car Seats — Car seats are complex, and Brittany at The Pistachio Project shares ways we might be using them improperly.
  • Could your child strangle on your window blinds? — One U.S. child a month strangles to death on a window blind cord — and it’s not always the obvious cords that are the danger. Lauren at Hobo Mama sends a strong message to get rid of corded blinds, and take steps to keep your children safe.
  • Tips to Help Parents Quit Smoking (and Stay Quit) — Creating a safe, smoke-free home not only gives children a healthier childhood, it also helps them make healthier choices later in life, too. Dionna at Code Name: Mama (an ex-smoker herself) offers tips to parents struggling to quit smoking, and she’ll be happy to be a source of support for anyone who needs it.
  • Gradually Expanding Range — Becca at The Earthling’s Handbook explains how she is increasing the area in which her child can walk alone, a little bit at a time.
  • Safety Sense and Self Confidence — Do you hover? Are you overprotective? Erica at ChildOrganics discusses trusting your child’s safety sense and how this helps your child develop self-confidence.
  • Staying Safe With Food Allergies and Intolerances — Kellie at Our Mindful Life is sharing how she taught her son about staying safe when it came to his food allergies.
  • Don’t Touch That Baby!Crunchy Con Mom offers her 3 best tips for preventing unwanted touching of your baby.
  • Playground Wrangling: Handling Two Toddlers Heading in Opposite Directions — Megan at the Boho Mama shares her experience with keeping two busy toddlers safe on the playground (AKA, the Zone of Death) while also keeping her sanity.
  • Letting Go of “No” and Taking Chances — Mommy at Playing for Peace tries to accept the bumps, bruises and tears that come from letting her active and curious one-year-old explore the world and take chances.
  • Preventing Choking in Babies and Toddlers with Older Siblings — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now gives tips on preventing choking in babies and toddlers along with Montessori-inspired tips for preventing choking in babies and toddlers who have older siblings working with small objects.
  • Keeping Our Children Safe: A Community and National Priority — September has many days and weeks dedicated to issues of safety; however, none stir the emotions as does Patriot Day which honors those slain the terrorist attacks. Along with honoring the victims, safety officals want parents to be ready in the event of another disaster whether caused by terrorists or nature. Here are their top tips from Mary at Mary-andering Creatively.
  • A Complete Family: Merging Pets and Offspring — Ana at Panda & Ananaso shares the ground rules that she laid out for herself, her big brown dog, and later her baby to ensure a happy, safe, and complete family.
  • Be Brave — Shannon at Pineapples & Artichokes talks about helping her kids learn to be brave so that they can stay safe, even when she’s not around.
  • Catchy PhrasingMomma Jorje just shares one quick tip for helping kids learn about safety. She assures there are examples provided.
  • Know Your Kid — Alisha at Cinnamon&Sassfras refutes the idea that children are unpredictable.
  • Surprising car seat myths — Choosing a car seat is a big, important decision with lots of variables. But there are some ways to simplify it and make sure you have made the safest choice for your family. Megan at Mama Seeds shares how, plus some surprising myths that changed her approach to car seats completely!
  • I Never Tell My Kids To Be Careful — Kim is Raising Babes, Naturally, by staying present and avoiding the phrase “be careful!”

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8 thoughts on “Staying Safe With Food Allergies and Intolerances

  1. Sounds like you are doing a great job empowering them to stay away from allergens!So far I’m the only one with major food intolerances(lactose) so we keep lots and lots of stuff in the house I can’t eat. But it makes sense to not do that when its a kid with the food allergy!

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  2. Wow! What a lot of work for you–but it’s so important, and I think your approach sounds wonderful for gradually increasing Walter’s ability to protect himself. My mother knew someone whose dairy-allergic child almost died after being licked by a dog whose food contained whey; it’s horrifying to think of all the risks an allergic child can encounter from foods that are harmless to most people (and animals).I do hope that the increase in severe food allergies and related increase in awareness is making life easier for you and will continue to do so. I had a friend in kindergarten (1978) who was allergic to dairy, eggs, chocolate, citrus, and tomatoes. We went to many birthday parties where he could not eat anything served. He was very alert and assertive, but sometimes the host parents would ARGUE with him that “a little” wouldn’t hurt! These days I hope most adults realize that they could actually kill a child with that attitude.—‘Becca

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  3. I was exhausted just reading about the precautions you have to take. You and your son sound pretty amazing. I can’t imagine how difficult and frustrating it must be to always have to be so diligent in this manner. Slowly people are becoming more aware of the dangers of food allergies. I really appreciated your article, thanks!

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  4. Wow, I can’t imagine how stressful it is. Fantastic that you have a support system that understands the dangers associated with your children’s allergies. My counsin’s MIL though food allergies were fake and would frequently “sneak” items into meals and was always shocked when an epi-pen had to be used or an ambulance called “because it was such a little amount and you couldn’t even taste it…”

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  5. lol on the “best thing since GF bread” – although I’d disagree, I think Walter is MUCH better than GF bread 😉 Seriously, though, awesome post. Pinning and hoping that every parent with a food-sensitive/allergic child will stumble across it.(Also – the comment from Becca above about the adults who would argue with her friend? That makes me shudder.)

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  6. You’ve really done a great job of helping Walter navigate his own allergies! These are great tips for any family dealing with food sensitivities and allergies. I’m going to have to remember these as we try to transition our kids away from some ingredients.

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  7. You are doing a great job of empowering your child to be confident about what he can and can’t eat. So often parents take control and the child does not really understand the whys and wherefores and tries to eat the wrong foods at every available opportunity.

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  8. Great job Mom! What a hard thing to go through with your children, something as basic as eating and food. My children do not have food allergies but I have intolerances to some foods so I have a very small understanding of what you have gone through. On a side note, I really dislike it when people offer my children candy or treats or snacks when we are out in public. Even worse, they think they are being mindful by asking me if it is ok, IN FRONT of my children! Of course they are upset if I say no. Grrr. I would never offer a stranger’s child food.

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