Monday, June 25, 2012

Food Allergies and Kids' Sleepovers

Summertime seems to have kids saying "Sleepover!" even more than usual. For kids without food allergies, sleepovers happen usually without a second thought, on the spur of the moment.

But what if your kid has food allergies? Does that mean they can't attend this time-honored rite of passage?

In most cases, the answer is a resounding "no"-- if you're willing to take precautions and take an active role in providing a safe environment.  Most kids can go on sleepovers, even with severe food allergies.

I know that for many parents, the idea of sending a child with life-threatening food allergies to a sleepover is frightening, because you are used to being the gatekeeper for your child regarding food and environments that can be harmful to them. When you deal with severe allergies, sleepovers are a big step for both you and your child -- most sleepovers involve more than one meal not to mention multiple snacks. Then there are the environmental concerns. Maybe you've been keeping certain foods out of  your home, or skipping certain activities like going to an ice cream shop. For non-food  allergy families that isn't the case, so there is that aspect, too.

With two daughters entering the older elementary grades and now middle school, I've been confronted by the sleepover question with increasing frequency. Over the years, I've learned a few things that have helped my allergic daughter enjoy this independent time away from home. It's all about reducing risk and managing the allergy. Here are some things that worked for me:

- Have a straightforward conversation with the other family. First things first: you have to talk about it. Don't assume that anyone knows your child has severe allergies and what that means. The goal isn't scaring the other family and putting them on red alert, it's letting them know about the allergies and how to reduce the risk of reaction. This includes not serving the allergenic food at the sleepover, such as PB snacks, banana splits with walnuts, etc. It's so much easier to simply not serve a certain food than to cope with the residue that it leaves. Why even risk it?

I've found that most other parents are very open to suggestions on foods and frequently they have called me to check in about what they would like to serve. We also discuss checking food labels (though I send a lot of the food, see below), using epinephrine, recognizing reactions  and cross-contact issues that can result. If another family is uncomfortable with any of this, it's better to know up front than to find out if something goes wrong--and your child isn't helped. Most parents I've spoken with are happy to work with us, but they need to know the details first.

Click this link to download a great new babysitter/drop off form created by Allergy Home (run by two allergists) and Kids with Food Allergies Foundation. It is great to print this and share it with the other family.

Consider your child's age and level of maturity. It seems to me that the sleepover age has decreased quite a bit in recent years--age 6 now seems to be the time most kids begin asking for sleepovers. I always thought this was a bit young, even for kids who have good understanding of food allergies. Even for kids without food allergies: many times this age group is good with sleeping at another house until about midnight and then they want to go home!

Waiting until your child is a bit older and more able to advocate for themselves (not to mention have good reading/verbal skills regarding labels, etc.) is helpful. One exception would be with a family who is very close to your family and who already knows the drill with regard to foods, hand-washing, etc.

- Begin with a "small" sleepover, especially for the younger age group. Especially for kids under age 10, keeping the group to two or three kids provides a great opportunity for independence while reducing the chaos --and food allergy risk -- that larger groups undoubtedly create. Keeping it small allows you and the other family to work together easily on food choices and activities that don't pose undue risk.

- Send food for the party and do restaurant research for the other family. For example, many of my daughter's friends order pizza at a sleepover,  so sometimes the parents will ask where we order our pizza.  If I  don't know the restaurant, I call for the parents to find out what the food allergy deal  is there. If I'm just not sure  about a food being offered, I give my daughter dinner before the party.  In the case of snacks, desserts and breakfast, I send  all of the above.

A nice thing to do is to bake something that everyone can enjoy for breakfast the next day--simple blueberry muffins or banana bread allows your child to have a safe treat along with everyone else. However, I've often sent cereal in a container along with a small container of milk and a plastic spoon. I tell the parents it's not that I doubt their cleanliness, etc.--it's about cross contact and reducing that risk. If repeat invitations are any indication, no one has been offended by this. I think most people appreciate that some of the burden is being taken off of them.

Send your child with their own pillow, blanket, etc. This is especially important if your child has any environmental or pet allergies.

Consider where the kids will sleep. If someone just had a party in the basement with peanuts or other allergenic foods, that may not be the best place for the kids to place their sleeping bags--there could still be residue, etc. Likewise, any pets that might eat foods with peanuts/tree nuts (guinea pigs, for example) shouldn't be in the room with the child who has an allergy.

Encourage your child to have fun and empower them to speak up if they need help. Be optimistic about the sleepover and tell your child they will have fun. You will want to reinforce all of your safety rules with your child, but as long as you've worked with the other parents, try to keep your anxieties to yourself. No child will enjoy themselves if they are given too many dire warnings or if their parents seem unsure about having them attend. However, you want to be gentle but firm in telling your child to ask an adult for help if they need it.Tell them they  can call you anytime of the day or night and ask the other parents to tell the child they are open to questions or calls for help.

A successful sleepover will make your child feel like any other kid and it goes a long way into showing them that they can manage their allergies. Once they feel like they have the allergy situation under control, they can get to the good stuff about sleepovers: watching movies, discussing bands and staying up way too late!

Is your child with food allergies at that "sleepover" age? How do you feel about sleepovers?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have a 7 year old son with a life threatening peanut allergy and he was just invited to his first sleepover birthday party. I am so torn and am leaning towards "no" and picking him up around 10pm. He is in a small knit class but I do not know the parents well and I just don't trust other kids…(i.e. mean jokes, tricks kids play at slumber parties) to understand the severity of my son's allergy. We talked about it and my son totally understands my worries so he may be disappointed but is not mad!