When allergy awareness gets personal

There’s always more to learn as Dr Kate Highfield found out with a young baby showing signs that allergies or intolerances to food needed investigation and greater understanding. 

It is Food Allergy Week (13–19 May) this week, and this year’s theme calls for Australians to ‘Be aware and show you care’. For me, after years as a primary school teacher, early childhood researcher and lecturer, this week has a new and personal importance: my seven-month-old baby girl is currently being investigated for some food allergies and intolerances.

When I grew up, food allergies were fairly rare, and as a child I only remember one family member having an allergy to peanuts. However, as an adult I’ve become increasingly aware of food allergies, with colleagues and friends allergic to dairy products, gluten and peanuts (to name a few). Current statistics suggest allergies affect approximately one in 20 children and about two in 100 adults.

Despite the fact that food allergies and intolerances are quite common, there is significant confusion around these and what they mean for us as educators working with young children. Here we see two similar, but different conditions: allergies and intolerances. Raising Children Network has some great information for parents and educators on the differences between food allergies and intolerances, and includes some good strategies and information about these conditions.

What I’ve discovered as a mother—that is relevant for educators—is that while food allergies may have more severe symptoms, both allergies and intolerances can make children very ill. This is why managing both is vital. Removing all dairy from my daughter’s diet has been a learning curve for me (and as she is breastfed it also means removing dairy from my diet—I’m craving ice cream and a good latte). I am learning that dairy products have a number of labels, for example, milk solids, lactose, whey or casein. I am also learning just how much of what I would normally eat contains dairy (the aforementioned coffee, butter, many breads, cakes, biscuits, etc.). It has also been important to work in partnership with my daughter’s educators to explain her reactions and ensure we can communicate easily about her food requirements and manage symptoms as needed. While many children will grow out of food allergies, we need to take time to understand these concerns and work closely with families to avoid exacerbating the conditions.

Food Allergy Week is a great time to discuss these concerns with your families and children. The following resources may be helpful:

Food image created by Jannoon028 – Freepik.com

Kate Highfield

Dr Kate Highfield is an experienced teacher, teacher educator and researcher, currently working with Early Childhood Australia - as the General Manager: Professional Learning and Research Translation. Prior to arriving at ECA in 2018, Kate spent over two decades working as a classroom teacher and as a teacher educator and researcher at Swinburne, Macquarie and Charles Sturt Universities. Kate’s work (supported by a range of grants and partnership projects) explores effective technology integration, with a focus on potential impacts on learning (for adults and children), pedagogy and play. This work specifically focusses on the use of technology in Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics (STEAM).

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