This is going to be a long post, so bear with me. A lot has been happening. 2012 began with difficulties to those of us raising children with life-threatening food allergies, especially peanut allergies. The biggest tragedy related to food allergies was when a 7-year-old girl lost her life due to a peanut allergy incident at school--every parent's worst nightmare.
Another thing that has worried parents in the last couple of weeks is introduction of Peanut Butter Cheerios to the marketplace. Yes, there have been many new peanut butter/tree nut products introduced in recent years. But Cheerios is marketed and used as a baby/toddler food, so obviously parents of allergic kids are concerned about mix ups, cross-contact and increased exposure to allergens among a young and vulnerable group of children. Basically, even though I'm sure it was not intended, this new product makes keeping our young kids safe even more difficult.
I started out the year feeling very hopeful and while the things I mentioned above are hard to accept, I want to tell you to feel hopeful, too. You have it in your power to educate your children against accidental ingestion. Educating them does work! For me, the proof is in my own child. She has always advocated for her safety--even questioning me about products I bring home from the grocery store. I love this about her and encourage it. When it comes to food allergies, you must help your kids to self-manage and self-advocate. The earlier you start, the better.
Let me share a recent story. One of the gifts my daughter received over winter break was a cupcake cookbook. Of course, some of the recipes had peanut butter, but that was not a big deal. "We'll just use SunButter for those" my daughter shrugged, and moved on when she spotted those recipes.
Only another parent who has spent many, many years baking dozens of cupcakes and other baked goods for every kid in the class can appreciate what I'm about to say next. My daughter is now baking for herself, from scratch. I nearly fainted when she baked the lemon cupcakes (pictured above) and presented them to the family for New Year's. (They were delicious! No joke.) I was overjoyed. Not only was I going to get a little break from the baking, but my daughter is learning to take care of herself. Learning to make homemade baked treats is a necessary skill for someone with life-threatening nut allergies. It warmed my heart to see my daughter taking on a skill she will need and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment it gave her. Plus, I thought to myself "She's seen me in the kitchen all these years baking for her, her sister and her school parties. She wants to do it for herself now. She understands."
Food allergies don't seem like a big deal to most people who aren't familiar with them. Each parent has different parenting styles and philosophies, but food allergies don't leave wiggle room in one important area, and that's life or death. You can't argue with a life-threatening allergic reaction once it begins. So prevention is always the best way, with preparedness for emergencies coming in at a close second.
I've been writing this blog for several years--this January marks the fourth year of my blog--and we've been living with food allergies for 8 years. The journey has been difficult at times and recent incidents like a tragic death remind me of how important it is to be proactive in our own lives. There is no replacement for this! Yes, epinephrine autoinjectors will help save lives and informed teachers and staff members are a must-have. But I've found that the single most important thing you can do is to help your kids learn how to prevent allergic reactions by following a few simple rules.
Now don't get me wrong--age plays a factor. The younger the child, the more they rely on others to help them. However, you can start at an early age with the process of self-management. Teach kids to say no to foods that they aren't sure about. Bottom line, period. Never seen it before? Don't eat it. Your friend tells you it's safe (this is one they will hear time and again -- "But it's safe.") Nope, unless you know this for a fact, don't eat it.
In the younger grades, my daughter used to bring foods home in her backpack for me to check. This was our rule and it worked very well for us. You may say that kids can't control themselves, but as they get older, this is something to practice with them. Even young kids can learn that certain food rules can't be broken and that foods offered at school are NEVER safe unless they've been checked by you or your trusted caregiver.
Another rule we've followed to the T: Don't ask the teacher to be the main gatekeeper of foods at school (even though some teachers are truly remarkable at food allergy management). This is something you should control. It seems that the "surprise" treats and such have the most potential for problems and allergic reactions. Be proactive and provide your child with safe alternatives that stay in the classroom and advocate for minimizing food and treats in the classroom as much as possible.
As kids get a bit older, such as kindergarten, the real training begins. This is where they will learn to be their own advocates, so teach them to say no if a classmate offers them any food. By the same token, no home baked treats brought in by parents unless you bake them. I can't tell you how many times I've seen nice, sweet moms of non-allergic kids bring in home baked treats and tell the class that they are "nut-free" or "dairy-free" or whatever. But if they aren't managing food allergies in their own homes (and sometimes, even if they are), the cross-contact risk is there.
You don't want kids to be frightened of eating, but you do want them to be cautious. Food is not always their friend. Facing that sometimes unpleasant fact head on will help to minimize accidental ingestion.
Another thing that helps is to show kids what isn't safe and what unsafe foods look like. In an effort to keep homes nut-free (something I do advocate if you have life-threatening nut allergies at home), some kids have never seen a peanut or tree nut! Show them what unsafe foods look like so they can avoid them. I love Beyond a Peanut for this reason. This is a great flashcard system that teaches kids and adults all about nut allergies in an easy-to-use format. Educating kids is key and this is a great way to do it.
Accidents can happen and mistakes can occur, so in tandem with reaction prevention, teaching emergency procedures is key. A couple of years ago, my daughter had a reaction at school, after lunch. She felt sick and she said she had the "feeling of doom" that is common in people experiencing allergic reactions. It turned out that her face had hives and her eyebrow was swelling.
Because she knew that the greatest potential for allergic reactions was around lunch time, my daughter high-tailed it to the nurse's office. The nurse took one look at her and said "Are you having an allergic reaction?" My daughter said yes, she thought she was. They treated her with Benadryl (per our emergency plan) and called me into the office. Please note: We have more than one epinephrine autoinjector stocked at school for allergic reactions and had other symptoms appeared, we would have used it. Please ask your doctors about when/how to use epinephrine for emergencies.
Luckily the reaction turned out to be mild and it did not progress. We got off easy that day, but part of the reason why had to do with preparedness.
My then 9-year-old daughter knew what to do in the emergency. She asked to leave the lunchroom and went straight to the nurse. (Looking back, an adult should have accompanied her, so go over this with your own school). The nurse knew my daughter because of the many conversations and before-school meetings I had with her when my daughter entered the school. So when she spotted her in the office with facial hives, she knew she might be looking at a severe allergic reaction in progress. While the nurse was prepared, had my daughter hesitated or been too upset to ask for the nurse, things could have gotten worse, quickly. It's worth it to role play these situations because unfortunately accidents do happen.
Looking back over the years since my daughter's food allergy diagnosis at age 4, we've come a long way. I trust my daughter so much more now that she has learned to self-advocate and self-manage. She will still need help, guidance and support, but she's getting there. She's taken in the lessons we've tried to teach her.
I want all of you dealing with allergies in your young kids to know that you can do it, too. A commitment to educating kids about their allergies and being proactive at school is something everyone can do.
I want 2012 to be safe, healthy and happy for you all. Belatedly, Happy New Year, everyone!
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