Monday, March 5, 2012

Food Allergies and "Safe" Activities: How Do You Decide?

One of the most frequent questions I hear from parents of kids with food allergies and peanut allergy, especially, is whether or not a certain activity is "safe" for their child. It stands to reason: Peanut residue (and tree nut, too, if you've got that concern as my family does), is all around us and often in the spots where you'd like to bring your kids. Events like the circus, baseball games, arena sporting events (like basketball or football), concerts, indoor playgrounds at the shopping mall -- just about every place you can think of might have a significant amount of allergen in the environment.

As parents, we might wonder: what are we supposed to do with this information? We can't keep our kids away from anything and most of us don't want to do that. This is one reason I'm so glad to see more and more baseball teams offering "peanut allergy-friendly" sections or "peanut-free" baseball games. Since peanuts are tradition at baseball, limiting them in certain sections takes a huge weight off parent's shoulders, especially those of us who've watched their child have a reaction during a regular game.

First, the bad news about nut allergies and whether or not to do something: this is not a question with a one-size-fits-all answer. I still struggle with it, depending on the activity or event. For one thing, a child's age and awareness of their allergy will play a role; so will their level of sensitivity to an allergen. If you have a child who is extremely sensitive, you might not even ask yourself if you can do something involving a lot of the allergen; you just don't do it. For example, with all of the peanuts everywhere, we don't feel comfortable bringing our daughter to a baseball game without a peanut-free section, especially at an outdoor field where weather, wind and peanut dust blowing around in the air is a strong possibility.(Be sure to ask your allergists about your particular situation; everyone is different.)

The event itself is a factor, too. How big of a role does an allergen play in this activity?Sometimes that will decide it if for you.

Now the good news: most of the time, you can find a way around allergies and do the activities you and your kids enjoy. And for the things you can't do or don't feel good about doing--it's OK. Your kids can still have an awesome, full and happy childhood.

I think it's important for parents to give themselves a break when it comes to dealing with food allergies. While it's important to find ways to do things that kids really want to do, we shouldn't feel like we have to take heroic measures to do every single thing. I mean, let's face it: even without food allergies, most kids can't do every single thing they'd like to do.

I remember when my daughter was first diagnosed with severe allergies at age 4. We found out in a very scary way--anaphylaxis following one bite of a peanut butter sandwich.

At the time, my daughter was in preschool and was beginning to get invited to birthday parties. Tea parties for the girls were big that year, held in special venues that catered to little kids. Of course, the main focal point of these parties was, you guessed it, food. Lots of unsafe food. Baked goods galore, sweets, sandwiches with PB & get the picture.

I got pretty good at deciding what parties we would go to and which ones we wouldn't. I'd ask a few questions. Was my daughter really excited about this party or person? Would she be devastated if she didn't go? If she did go, would it be worth it to send in basically an entire menu of separate food and then still be concerned someone would give her the wrong thing?

When my daughter was four, I also had a toddler and limited outside childcare (aka, grandparents, sitters), so I think that decided a lot of it for me, too. I couldn't drag my little one to every party and drive myself crazy trying to keep an eye on her and make sure anaphylaxis didn't happen, too. So we skipped a few parties if we really didn't know the hosts, I saved myself some stress, and yet my daughter still had a good time at the things she did attend. And I've found that most of the time, yes, you can do the things your kids want to do. But if not, don't worry. They will be fine.

So much of dealing with a first diagnosis of food allergies is just getting your mind around the lifestyle changes and challenges. You will find your own way of deciding how to do what's most important to you, but don't beat yourself up if you think you'll fall short by not doing everything and going everywhere. Some places and things will feel more "right" to you than others will and that's OK.

If you decide to go someplace like the circus or a hands-on children's museum where cross-contact might be a problem, it's a good idea to approach with the understanding that you might have to leave early. Have your hand wipes, medication, food from home and everything else you need, but be aware that you might want to cut the event short if you feel your child is having a problem with allergies. Sometimes you just won't know unless you try (and of course managing risk in the first place is important). For those of you new to nut allergies, I talk about all of this and more in my new e-book: "The New Nut-Free Mom."


Mamadizastre said...

Awesome Blog! My son is in Kindergarten and has started being invited to birthdays. It's a balancing act and we have had to be creative in our approaches. Thanks so much for sharing!

The Domestic Chick said...

I just ran across your blog searching for peanut allergy info... Like you, I have 2 girls: one with the severe allergy and one without (thus far.). Your site is very helpful- thanks!
Here's my blogsite:

Sharo said...

You present as a voice of sanity and reason among a sea of hysteria. Thanks.

Jennifer Buteau said...

It really can be challenging, especially for maybe the first year after diagnosis. I feel like we have a good routine that works for us now, after 6+ years of living peanut and nut-free. Thank goodness, parents are accustomed to peanut-free classrooms and children with epipens. It makes it so much easier!

Thank you so much, btw, for the link re: peanut free baseball. I appreciate it!