· By Catherine Susanto
#Ohhmoments - Liz Lawton shares her son Food Allergy story and how she handled the situation
My second child, Henry, was born and breastfed easily for 6 months, with the only (retrospective) symptom of a possible food allergy being excessive spitting up. Because it caused him no distress, he was labeled a “happy spitter” by the paediatrician. He followed behind an older sister, who nursed easily for 12 months and took to solid food like a pro, eating any and everything without issue and never giving us any reason for concern around food.
As a school psychologist, I was familiar with food allergies in so far as accommodating students who had them, but food allergies were not high on my radar as a concern for my own children. We started Henry on solids at 6 months and one of the first foods I gave him (green beans) caused him to break out in full body hives within 15 minutes. I had puréed them in a small attachment that goes to our blender (after all was said and done, it was residual almond butter causing the reaction but it would be weeks before we knew this). Our paediatrician saw him immediately, instructed us to continue giving him the three foods he hadn’t reacted to, and referred us to an allergist. For those three weeks, he would continue to break out in hives seemingly sporadically, without much of a clear link to what he had eaten. Skin testing revealed reactions to dairy, egg, tree nuts and peanuts. Blood testing corroborated this, with his number for peanut being low enough the allergist wanted us to orally challenge immediately- he did and passed, and so the other three remained our “official” allergens.
(The result of eating a tuna salad sandwich while simultaneously holding Henry)
Those first few weeks following his diagnosis were hard. Extremely anxiety producing. Isolating. Confusing. Guilt provoking. Overwhelming. Food- the purchasing of it, the preparation of it, the consumption of it- is a large portion of every single day of a person’s life. How could we possibly keep him safe from such a ubiquitous thing? The thought alone of using his Auvi-Q, of having to jam a needle into his chubby little baby leg while watching him struggle to breathe, had me in tears. What would I do if and when the day came I had to use it? I had to eliminate all these foods from my own diet if I wanted to keep breastfeeding- that meant an immediate learning curve for me. Broader and less pressing questions to do with school and birthday parties and restaurants and vacations swirled in my head too, but the immediate issue was educating myself on reading food labels and making our home safe for Henry.
I have always loved to cook and family meal times are sacred to me- Henry’s allergies involved a massive overhauling of how I cooked. I felt thankful that he was still a baby, eating mostly fruits, veggies, simple proteins and fats and not family meals yet. It gave me time to refine my menus- see which meals I regularly made for my family that could easily be modified to be egg, dairy and nut free, and ones that we would be giving up (lasagna, old friend. We still miss you). I channeled much of this into a new Instagram account, @thetoddlerfoodie, in hopes of maybe making even one more mom feel like she could still cook nutritious and balanced meals for her family despite the limitations of allergies.
We had choices to make. We decided we would not make our house dairy free. We had a (freshly) two year old who loved her cow’s milk and yogurts and cheeses. We made it a rule that her milk could only be drank at meal times and while she was seated at the table. We taught her to wash hands right after eating. We taught her she could never go up to Henry’s high chair during meal times and she certainly could not share food with him. There were a few mishaps with this, but truly and thankfully not many. She is an incredible advocate for her brother and sometimes even beats her father to asking “does that have milk in it? My brother can’t have milk”. We were so lucky to have already planned that for his first 18 months he would be doing a nanny share in our own home with one other child his age. Our nanny was extremely happy to learn about his allergy needs along with me, made sure she knew how to use his epi, and made sure he was safe during the three days a week I was at work.
Slowly, our house felt like a safe place for food. Our family and friends have been extremely accommodating, and we feel safe going to their houses and feeding our child. Other gatherings are still hard. We don’t go to restaurants and on the rare occasions we do, we pack Henry’s food. Starting daycare at 18 months was terrifying. I’m still surprised our kids’ school didn’t ask us to leave and not come back due to how high strung I was. I strongly debated quitting working. But with much experience with kids with food allergies, the school navigated us through utilizing a separate and buckled chair during meal times, changes their milk Sippy cup protocol in Henry’s classroom, and made his room egg and tree nut free. As a parent who was once on the other end of this (having to remember not to send PBJ for my daughter who herself was in a peanut free room due to a classmates allergies), I did and do appreciate all the other parents shouldering the inconvenience of what they can pack for their own kids, who of course may have their own challenges such as gaining weight or pickiness, in order to keep our child safe.
(Henry “shopping” for play cheese at the grocery store in our museum of play. No vegan cheese there!)
Henry turned two in March and the next step is starting to teach him about his own allergies. We’ve started telling him about his Ripple milk being different from his sister’s milk. How we don’t share food. How cheese will make him sick. I hate the thought of him feeling different. I know that bullying and excluding of kids with allergies is a real thing. I know that birthday parties and holidays and school events will only get harder to navigate. He passed his baked milk challenge in the fall and is scheduled to challenge baked cheese this summer. His almond numbers look low and we hope to be able to challenge that in the near future, as well. I try not to think too much about “what if he outgrows them all?” because he may not and that disappointment will be real, and devastating all over again, and the fear of navigating food allergies with a big kid will be realer still.
My allergist told me during one appointment “it’s okay that you feel significant anxiety around this. It’s the parents who don’t feel significant anxiety whose kids have more frequent reactions. Your anxiety is keeping him safe.” Just like with anything in life, on a good day or in a good moment, I try really hard to find the positives in our situation. He is healthy and growing. He is a great and adventurous eater, and therefore his nutrition is incredibly well rounded despite the fact that he can’t access some major foods. We have come up with some protocols that have allowed us to keep him very safe. We are in a position financially where we can afford to test out 9 varieties of seven dollar vegan cheeses (only to have him dislike them all), and send him to a school that handles food allergies well. Most of all, It’s clear how many people love him and care for him and work to keep him safe. If it remains our lot in life to be a food allergy family, and for Henry to deal with this throughout his life, I hope it teaches all of us to be responsible, to educate ourselves, to be empathetic to other people’s special needs and limitations.
I am hugely appreciate to companies like Ohhfoods for recognizing the (unfortunately) growing market who requires food options free of top 8 allergens. And also for encouraging families with food allergies to share their stories- it helps to feel like you aren’t alone in managing a child with food allergies, and it helps for people who don’t have to deal first hand with food allergies to perhaps see the day to day challenges experienced by people who do.