- James Gallagher
- Health and Science Editor – BBC
Giving small portions of softened peanut butter to young babies — 4 to 6 months old — can significantly reduce peanut allergies, scientists say.
The government’s breastfeeding advice of not giving babies solid food until around six months should change, scientists have suggested.
Experts warn that whole or chopped nuts and peanuts increase the risk of choking and should not be given to children under five.
Current NHS guidance states that peanuts (powdered, ground or butter) can be introduced from six months of age.
A baby is ready for first solid food if the following conditions are met:
The child should stand still in a sitting position and keep the head still.
The child can control his eyes, hands and mouth and can see his food and put it in his mouth.
Able to swallow food instead of spitting it out.
Why do food allergies occur?
Peanut allergy is on the rise in the UK, affecting 1 in 50 children.
Food allergies occur when the immune system mistakes something harmless as a serious threat.
For some people, even a small amount of peanuts can trigger an immune response, so much so that it can be life-threatening.
Peanut allergies have become so common that some schools are banning them.
There has long been advice to avoid allergenic foods in childhood, and families were once told to avoid peanuts until the child turned three.
However, evidence over the past 15 years has turned that upside down.
Instead, eating peanuts while your immune system develops — and develops the ability to tell friend from foe — can reduce allergic reactions, experts say.
The body’s first experience of peanuts is in the stomach, where it is more likely to be recognized as food, rather than in the skin, where it can be perceived as threatening.
In Israel, peanut snacks are popular among young people and have very low allergy rates.
Other studies suggest that introducing other foods associated with allergies, such as eggs, milk, and wheat, also reduces early allergies.
Recent research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has calculated the best time to introduce peanut-containing foods.
The analysis was carried out by the University of Southampton, King’s College London and a research arm of the NHS – the National Agency for Health and Care Research.
They found that the critical period for onset was between four and six months, during which sensitivity could be reduced by 77%.
This is equivalent to preventing 10,000 cases of peanut allergy out of 13,000 each year.
According to research, delaying the introduction of peanut-containing foods to a child until one year of age can reduce the incidence of allergies by only 33%.
For babies with eczema, a risk factor for allergies, researchers recommend starting at four months of age — until the baby is ready.
They say parents should start by offering small amounts of fruit or vegetables.
Then, when the child is comfortable, three teaspoons of peanut butter should be offered weekly and continued for several years. Peanut butter, which can be very drying, can be given with breast milk.
Professor Graham Roberts of the University of Southampton said decades of advice to avoid peanuts had “understandably led to parents’ fear of giving peanuts to children”, and the rule change had led to a great deal of confusion from doctors and parents.
Still, it’s a “simple, low-cost and safe intervention that could have significant benefits for future generations,” Roberts said.
The official advice is to introduce solid foods with milk at six months of age, and the government has launched the Just in Time Weaning campaign as parents start early.
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