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Jan 20, 2013

Food Allergies - A Constant Learning Opportunity

The subject of food allergies is a HUGE part of our life (obviously...). I could easily dedicate several posts to this topic alone (and I'm sure I will do just that). Thank you for sharing this journey with us!

If you know us or have read my previous posts, you know that my son has a severe, life-threatening milk allergy. He was officially diagnosed at 6 months old, although I was sure of it only a few weeks after he was born. He had a few instances as an infant of blood in his stools and colic that, in hindsight, were a sensitivity to foods in my diet while I was nursing.

Changing my diet helped, but at 6 months old we started supplementing formula and the problems worsened. It took a little while to convince our pediatrician it was an allergy but after a severe bout of hives when eating cereal puffs containing a milk ingredient, we were finally referred to an allergy/asthma specialist for a formal diagnosis.

Three and a half years later, avoiding milk and anything with milk or its derivatives as an ingredient, reading every label, being extremely diligent about cross-contamination, and packing food for any meals away from home are now a normal part of our lives. (He was also allergic to eggs, but has since grown out of it and does just fine with them-Praise the Lord!)

Although we have had struggles here and there, my little man is very well adjusted to his allergy and really understands a lot about it at such a young age. He has had a few reactions and remembers them well enough to know he doesn't want to feel that way again. He is SO smart and cognizant of his allergy. He knows to ask if something is "safe" for him before accepting it, and does so regularly.

I will never forget Halloween night when he was not quite two years old. We had been practicing how to knock, say "trick-or-treat," hold out his bag, say "thank you," and not to touch anything inside until Mommy had checked it to be sure it was safe. At one of the first houses I finally decided to stand back and let him do his thing. He did everything just as we had practiced. The neighbor held out a bowl and I watched him stare intently into the bowl, (my anxiety going 100 miles per hour) when he turned and yelled, "Mommy, these aren't safe for me!"

It seems a little silly to say, but that is one of my absolute proudest mom moments right there! It's a toss up between that day and seeing him run across the soccer field with a bag of fruit snacks in hand, yelling, "Mommy, can I have this?!" The looks I get from people who just don't understand are sometimes humorous, but honestly, I LOVE using those moments to educate others about food allergies.

I am incredibly thankful that our families are experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to allergies. Food allergies seem to have run rampant between my son and my nephew and nieces. (I think we could all pretty well be considered experts on the topic by now!) I am also blessed with wonderful in-laws who have learned about allergies and do so much to include the little guy when we get together. I love them all so much!

As for daycare, we have had our share of learning (and teaching) opportunities. At 18 months old, I decided to send my *baby* to a church preschool. It was nerve-wracking for this mommy and took some time for us all to adjust. But over time, the daycare director and teachers were absolutely wonderful and learned SO much about his allergy. They began to provide nearly all of his food for breakfast, lunch and snack. They were all such a blessing to us and made it just that much easier for me to worry (a little) less.

When my hubby and I got married, little man and I moved to a small town about 30 minutes away from the daycare. For nearly a year, I couldn't bring myself to switch daycares, even though it would've been great to not have to drive an hour+ each day. I knew eventually I would be having to educate a new teacher each year once he starts school and figured it was as good a time as any to take the plunge.

So, about five months ago he began attending a preschool only a few miles from our home. After the first few meetings, the director and I decided it best if I brought his meals and snacks each day. We have breakfast at home, I provide almond milk for the week along with his entrees (they do provide fruit and veggies daily) and snacks. Five weekly rotating menus make it easy to keep track of, and I do my best to make him something very similar to what the other kids are eating for each meal.

In my quest to feed my family healthier meals, this is definitely a blessing. I know exactly what goes into his meals, which is a plus from both the allergy and nutrition perspectives. I've tried to educate everyone at the new preschool about his allergies, but I have to admit it is kind of nice to just be able to say, "don't feed him anything that I didn't bring and/or approve of in advance."

There is MUCH more to food allergy education however, such as:
the necessity of handwashing by all kids and teachers before and after meals;
having an EpiPen accessible at all times;
recognizing symptoms of a reaction;
and knowing that accidental exposure could result in any form of reaction from hives to anaphylaxis, requiring hospitalization-or worse. We deal with asthma as well, which studies have shown can result in more severe allergic reactions.

One of the most important rules when it comes to food allergies is there can be absolutely NO guessing. If it doesn't have a label, or you just don't know, the answer is no. Even at such a young age, Mason understands this. He doesn't feel like he's being excluded when he doesn't get to have something that his friends have (although I do usually have a healthy and safe alternative on hand for him).

Just the other day, we were driving through town and I heard him exclaim in his happy little boy voice, "Hey look, there's McDonald's! I can't eat there!"

It just makes my heart swell! :)

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