According to the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) organization, 1 in 13 children in the United States has a food allergy. Chances are your child may suffer from a food allergy or food intolerance, or knows someone who does. While there are significant differences between food allergies and food intolerances, understanding both is important to keep your child’s food safe. Nearly 40 percent of children with a food allergy have experienced a severe or life-threatening reaction. An allergic reaction can range in severity from mildly itchy skin to life-threatening anaphylaxis.
Food allergies are not only serious, they can be embarrassing for the affected child. There is so much stress around what they can eat that they sometimes don’t want to eat anywhere but at home. But that’s not completely practical. So how can parents create a safe environment for their children, while minimizing the stressors on the individuals who care for them? It’s not impossible, but communication, education, and patience can be a big help.
The most important action a parent can take is to communicate the details of a child’s food allergy or intolerance. The more information that can be provided to caregivers, family members, and school personnel, the better. Although a child can have a reaction anywhere, preschool and school-age children spend the majority of their time in school where allergens are present. The best way to safeguard children and communicate their needs is to have a 504 plan put into place.
A 504 plan refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It is a legal document designed to protect the rights of individuals with any form of disability, such as a health condition including life-threatening food allergies. This law applies to all facilities, including schools, that receive federal financial support. When a child is diagnosed with a food allergy that may cause a potentially life-threatening reaction, the child’s condition meets the definition of a disability under Section 504.
A 504 plan is one type of a written plan a parent of a child with a severe food allergy may create, in collaboration with their school administrators, to define a food allergy plan for their child. Once a general 504 plan is in place, more detailed parameters can be created for an individual’s health care plan and emergency care that are specific to a child’s needs. This is a well-established practice in public schools, so it is unlikely school administrators will be resistant to complying. Many parents in years past have paved the way, helping to create a more tolerant atmosphere in schools.
Next comes education. The more times a parent can meet with their child’s teachers and caregivers, explaining what their child’s food limitations are, the more everyone’s stress can be minimized. In some cases, it’s simply best to provide the teacher with snacks that your child can eat during a party or special event. Having special food on hand takes the guesswork out of what is okay for your child to eat and ensures your child won’t feel left out.
Having a food allergy or intolerance is stressful for children. Having to explain to others why they can’t eat certain foods, which they may not quite understand themselves, can be overwhelming. Many schools are implementing a “no food sharing” policy. It may seem extreme, but some schools go so far as to suspend students who share food.
Food allergies and intolerances are a reality and prevention is safer than treating an emergency. That’s why it’s important to educate all parties involved, including the child, about the consequences of eating a particular food that can trigger a reaction in them. It sometimes seems unfair for the child who may feel left out. Reminding them of the physical consequences of eating the wrong food and how bad they feel afterwards can be part of an effective conversation.
Lastly, be patient. It can be daunting and stressful having to explain over and over again the details of a child’s condition, but caregivers and family members must agree to meet the child’s needs in the event of an emergency. This is their choice and it can be frustrating when others do not choose to take the child’s condition seriously. Have emergency phone numbers and medical information ready and available in many places throughout the home and in backpacks.
Be sure the caregiver or school staff members know exactly what to communicate to emergency medical personnel if an allergic reaction occurs. If someone is coming to your home, make sure no outside food is brought in. Make sure food that is safe to eat is available to pack if an outing is planned.
By keeping it simple, a caregiver or school can focus on fun and learning, and let a kid be a kid.