First Person: When Food Allergies Affect Your Child

Anne Munoz-Furlong is founder and CEO of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a national nonprofit organization in Fairfax, Virginia, established to increase public awareness about food allergies, children's food allergies, and anaphylaxis (a severe, life-threatening reaction), provide education, and advance research on behalf of adults affected by food allergies and children's food allergies.

My daughter showed signs that something was wrong by the time she was a few weeks old. She spit up soon after eating, cried a lot and pulled her legs to her chest as if in pain. Her face had a red rash. Her nose was always itchy; she would scrub her nose against my shoulder whenever I picked her up. Although I didn't know she had allergies, it was clear that something was not right with this baby.


Searching for an Answer

I took her to a number of doctors, searching for the answer to her troubles. I stopped breast feeding and put her on cow-milk formula, then switched her to soy formula. We'd have a break for a few days, but soon the symptoms began again.

This process went on for nine months. The doctors told me she was just fussy, that I hadn't taught her how to sleep and that's why she rarely slept more than 30 minutes at a time. One doctor told me I was a nervous mother and was the cause of the problems, another told me she vomited because I moved her soon after she ate. However, she had projectile vomiting that could almost hit the wall across the room, so I knew in my heart something was wrong. I raised the issue of allergies, but the doctors assured me babies don't get allergies and dismissed me. This was one of the most trying periods of my life. I had a baby no one wanted to be around because she cried constantly, her nose was always running, and her face was a red scaly mess.

A Fear that Something Was Seriously Wrong

After nine months I started to become worried that she had a serious disease and I was running out of time, so I took her to Children's Hospital [in Washington D.C.] We were referred to the allergy department. There, a pediatric allergist took her history of symptoms, did a number of skin tests, and determined that she was allergic to foods. He asked me to take her off the formula and not to give her eggs. Within a few days she was a changed baby. The crying and screaming stopped. The quiet was very peaceful.


Help for Your Child's Allergies

Since I had a three-year old who could eat anything, and the baby was now learning to eat table foods, I had to learn to juggle the needs of both children. I fed the baby first to be sure she didn't get anything with milk or eggs. I made special trips out with my other daughter to buy her the ice cream and cookies we no longer served at home. Unfortunately, the doctor's only advice was, "Go home and avoid milk and eggs." It wasn't until I got home that I realized I had no clue what that meant or how to begin. Furthermore, every time I made a mistake [by giving her something she couldn't tolerate], my daughter broke out in hives, the crying and vomiting started and the guilt I felt got a little higher. I hit the library and bookstore and read every book I could to try to learn what was going on and how I could best handle this new situation.

There were a few surprising aspects:


  1. When we made a mistake and when we had a victory, the feedback was quick.
  2. Most people didn't believe me and thought I'd made up the diagnosis.
  3. Several people tried to sabotage our elimination diet, [a procedure by which a very simple diet is started and foods are then introduced one at a time to determine which cause reactions], to see what would happen or to prove to me that she didn't have food allergies.
  4. Other new mothers didn't want to be around us because we were too much trouble and I didn't have a "perfect" baby.

Life Gets Easier

Parents of children with food allergies need to know that life does get easier. Once the family gets used to the new way of cooking or eating, managing a food allergy isn't so time consuming. They also need to find a doctor who believes in them and is willing to work as a partner to take care of their child. Finally, planning ahead and always carrying a 'safe' snack makes a world of difference.

I wish I had known that the symptoms my daughter had were classic allergy symptoms. I wish I'd known that babies can get allergies and that a pediatric allergist is the best source of help in determining what is wrong. Finally, I wish I'd known that there are millions of families with food-allergic children. We felt like outcasts because we knew so little about food allergies and we didn't know anyone else who was raising a child with food allergies.