Food allergies and intolerances in babies

The difference between food allergy and food intolerance is often not that clear. Here's your guide on how to know what to look out for

In Baby

4 minutes read

At a glance

Both food allergies and intolerance in babies are reactions to certain foods                                                                

An allergy is the immune system’s reaction to a food that’s mistaken as harmful

 

A food intolerance has less severe reactions than an allergy and can be more complicated to diagnose

Babies usually outgrow food allergies by early childhood

Food allergies and intolerance in babies are one of the biggest worries a parent has when weaning. But knowing a bit more about them can help you know whether your little one has an allergy, intolerance, or simply dislikes what you’ve put on their plate.

What is a food allergy?

Allergies come about when the immune system mistakes a usually harmless food protein as a threat to the body. The body fights back with an immune response by producing antibodies to fight off allergens. This results in an allergic reaction.

Common food allergies may include:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Gluten
  • Soya
  • Nuts
  • Fish and shellfish

What are the signs of food allergies in babies?

Allergies are often passed down through the family. If there is a family history of allergies (including eczema, asthma and hay fever), your baby is more likely to develop allergies, and you should speak with your doctor before starting weaning.

Symptoms can appear straight after eating a food, or there may be a delay in the symptoms, which can include

  • Diarrhoea or vomiting
  • A persistent cough
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Itchy throat and tongue
  • Itchy skin or rash
  • Swollen lips and throat
  • Runny or blocked nose
  • Sore, red and itchy eyes

If you suspect your baby is having an allergic reaction, the important thing is not to panic.

  • Contact a healthcare professional as soon as you think something's wrong
  • Discuss how to manage your baby's diet to make sure they still get all the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development
  • Good news is that many babies outgrow their food allergies in early childhood
  • Visit Allergy UK for find more tips on dealing with food allergies
Thoughtful baby holding a spoon

What is food intolerance?

Unlike an allergy, a food intolerance is a reaction that does not involve the immune system. The most common intolerance in babies is a lactose intolerance which means their body has difficulties digesting the sugar in milk (lactose) causing bloating, wind and diarrhoea.

Symptoms of food intolerance tend to come on more slowly, often many hours after eating making them harder to diagnose. They include:

  • Stomach cramps
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea

If you’re concerned that your baby has a food intolerance, or a food allergy, speak to your GP, health visitor or public health nurse.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The best way to feed a baby is to breastfeed, as breast milk provides the ideal balanced diet and protection against illness for your baby and also many non-nutritional benefits for both baby and mother. We recommend that you speak to your healthcare professional when deciding on your choice of feeding your baby. Professional guidance should also be sought on the preparation for and maintenance of breastfeeding. If you do choose to breastfeed, it's important to eat a healthy, balanced diet. Infant formula is intended to replace breast milk when mothers choose not to breastfeed or if for some reason they are unable to do so. A decision not to breastfeed, or to introduce partial bottle-feeding, will reduce the supply of breast milk. If for any reason you choose not to breastfeed, do remember that such a decision can be difficult to reverse. Using infant formula also has social and financial implications which must be considered. Infant formula should always be prepared, used and stored as instructed on the label, in order to avoid risks to a baby’s health.

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