New peanut allergy guidelines are the opposite of what we’d been told

When parents start introducing foods to their infants, one of the things they usually worry about is allergies. Over the past 20 years, the number of children diagnosed with peanut allergies has soared, from 0.4 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2010. These allergies can be life-threatening, and parents have been told to delay the introduction of foods like peanuts and eggs in order to keep vulnerable children safe. Turns out, we may have had this backward.

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A new set of guidelines from the National Institute of Health recommends introducing foods containing peanuts to infants between the ages of 4 and 6 months as a way to prevent peanut allergies. It sounds counterintuitive, but recent research cited by the NIH showed that “regular peanut consumption begun in infancy and continued until 5 years of age led to an 81 percent reduction in development of peanut allergy in infants deemed at high-risk because they already had severe eczema, egg allergy, or both.”

That’s mind-blowing. An 81 percent reduction in peanut allergies. And that’s among kids who were considered high risk for developing them.

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In an article by Stat news, Dr. David Stukus, one of the co-authors of the guidelines, was quoted as saying, “There is this magic window of opportunity where you can introduce peanut-containing foods… [When] we introduce [these] foods early, the immune system can get used to it.”

It’s easy to see why parents whose children are at a high risk of developing peanut allergies would be nervous about feeding them to their 4-month-olds. And there are some caveats — the NIH says that high-risk infants between the ages of 4 and 6 months should be seen by an allergy specialist before they are given foods containing peanuts. For babies with a moderate risk, they should wait to be given these foods until they are 6 months of age, but do not need to be seen by a specialist first.

Though these new guidelines fly in the face of what we’ve been taught over the past few years, the science behind it is compelling and should give parents hope that their children need not be subject to the dangers of peanut allergies.

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