Peanuts and Beyond: Coping with Childhood Food Allergies
“Your daughter is breathing at 80% capacity. To assist her in breathing, we need to administer a breathing treatment, epinephrine and steroids. She will then be under a 4 to 6 hour observation in emergency.”
This phrase or any variation of it sends panic and fear coursing through a parent’s body.
As parents, we aim to nurture, protect, and educate our children to the best of our abilities.
We read about developmentally appropriate foods to give. We model healthy food habits by offering fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. We read online and discuss food options with pediatricians, fellow parents, and daycare providers. As a mother of two, I believed I was well prepared for my daughter’s journey towards independent eating. However, I was not ready for the six hours of worry that followed on a December evening.
In my case, the culprit was a dime-sized amount of peanut butter given to my one-year-old daughter. On a beautiful evening following Christmas, we sat together enjoying the glow of our holiday lights. As I sat on the floor with my daughter, enjoying my peanut butter sandwich, she glanced at me and said, “Mmm” and cutely shook her head “yes” affirming she wanted a bite. I hesitantly gave her a lick, knowing that peanuts are one of the most common allergies in the United States. While I was afraid, I rationalized she would be okay because I ate peanut butter while pregnant as well as while I breastfed her. She had not shown any signs of sensitivity, so we were good to go.
Within minutes, she began to sneeze. I chalked it up to a cold she recently contracted from her older brother. Then her sneezing became worse, increasing in frequency and severity. I noticed clear mucus flowing from her nose. I saw she was rubbing her eyes and it was then that I noticed she had broken out in hives all over her body, her eyes were swollen, and I was panicking. I administered Benadryl as her pediatrician directed, hoping that it would reduce her symptoms. Sadly, she was not able to keep the medication in her body. I contacted my emergency advice line, a call that kept me waiting for 18 more minutes. While waiting, I bathed my daughter in an effort to get the vomit off her skin, which was causing a red rash everywhere.
The advice nurse told us to “monitor” her symptoms because she could not hear breathing problems while listening over the phone. After 3 more incidents of vomiting, my husband and I realized that she was heading into anaphylactic shock and we needed to act immediately. We raced to our local urgent care and it was here that we learned that our daughter was struggling to breathe. Her lips and skin had gone from bright pink to a pale grey color, indicating her airways were closing.
We also learned that she is one of many children who have a severe peanut allergy, and that it will be a life-long allergy that will not likely get better. I felt responsible for my child’s allergy and felt like the worst mother on the planet for not acting sooner. In my complacency with an advice nurse’s suggestions, my daughter nearly lost her life.
As scary as this experience was for my family, there were some very valuable lessons that I learned:
Emotional Reactivity: The guilt I felt for giving my daughter peanut butter was valid. It is also unfairly ascribed. There was no possible way, short of being clairvoyant, that I could have known my daughter would have this reaction. Thankfully I was with her when it happened and was able to react quickly.
Get to an Urgent Care or Emergency Room as Soon as Possible: According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), every three minutes food allergies send someone to the emergency room. 40% of children with food allergies have severe reactions such as anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a multi-system reaction in our body to a substance that we cannot tolerate. It can manifest with hives, itching, swelling, and difficulty breathing.
Increased Food Awareness: This experience has forced me to be aware of what I am consuming as an extended breastfeeding mother as well as what my daughter consumes. I carefully read labels for all tree nut and peanut traces, ask questions at all restaurants about what types of oil they use to cook, and avoid cross contamination with our utensils.
Proactive Advocate for my Child’s Health: I am the voice of my child. If I do not speak up for her and ask every question I have on her behalf, it could mean the difference between life and death. It’s okay to be afraid, but do not let that fear hurt your child.
Increased Comfort with the Word “No”: I have become comfortable with the word “NO.” I have learned that it is okay to leave a restaurant that uses peanuts in their kitchen. I have learned it’s okay to leave a place that cannot tell me definitively that they do not use peanut oil. I have become comfortable with telling relatives who have eaten nuts or peanut butter that they cannot hold our child or kiss her due to her allergy. I have to decide what is more important: their needs or my child’s right to life.
Lifestyle Changes: I have begun educating myself on common allergens, where they can be found, strategies to integrate into life, and using the epinephrine auto-injector. I believe the more information we have, the better equipped we will be to handle an emergency. We can administer my child’s Epi-pen. I can perform child CPR. We are all aware of signs to look for when she has a reaction. My older child knows how to call 9-1-1. We practice stringent cleaning practices. We believe in prevention and early intervention. It will save her life.
If you or your child/children have an allergy, there are things you can do.
1. Be aware of the signs of reaction:
Rash, Swelling, Wheezing or Difficulty breathing, Sneezing, Itchiness
Follow your healthcare provider’s directives regarding the administration of medications, including Benadryl or Epinephrine auto-injectors.
2. Get to the hospital: When in doubt, just go!
3. Ask, ask, then ask again. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
4. Get support! You are NOT ALONE!
Inquire about parent groups, nutritionists, and accommodations at your schools and daycares.
Seek out counseling if you continue to feel guilt or attachment concerns following your experience.
5. Seek guidance
Talk to your pediatrician. Discuss your child’s allergies with your WIC office. Read about allergies online through WIC education and blogs. Connect with other WIC parents or those in your neighborhood coping with the same issue.
Visit Food Allergy Research and Education page to read about food allergies.
Visit The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology to learn more about additional allergens and how to live with them
Danielle Larin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is passionate about women’s mental health issues and maternal mental health. She works with adolescent girls, young adult women, and the LGBTQ community. She created her poetry blog "Thoughts of Preponderance" in 2010. She lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, Ricardo and her two children.