Food allergies are a serious concern for parents. You want to do your best as a parent and offer your child a wide range of foods, yet you worry about how they will react.
Allergic reactions can be severe, ranging from a minor rash to difficulty breathing. In worst-case scenarios, it can even lead to anaphylaxis. This makes introducing new foods to your child a daunting task. As you may already know, parents are often encouraged to introduce their children to foods during infancy.
This is advice often passed from parent to parent, but what does the science say?
One of the most concerning allergies is, of course, a peanut allergy. Fortunately, researchers at the Immune Tolerance Network in London studied peanut allergies in infants in detail in their LEAP study. Let’s take a closer look at peanut allergies in babies, what the LEAP study showed, and the most important takeaways for parents.
A peanut allergy is when the immune system misidentifies peanut proteins as harmful. An allergy to peanuts appears to have become more prevalent over the last few decades. The number of cases has tripled in the US between 1997 and 2008.
This apparent increase caused western health authorities to recommend that pregnant women and high-risk children under 3 avoid peanuts. But was this the right approach?
The LEAP study, and others like it, seem to suggest that it’s not. Many scientists now believe infants should be exposed to high-risk foods (including peanuts). Many studies are starting to see positive results in favor of early exposure.
Approximately 0.6% of people in the US have a peanut allergy–these can have a wide range of effects on babies. Peanut allergies in babies often occur within minutes but can develop over a few hours. Reactions vary from very mild (a rash) to severe (breathing difficulties or anaphylactic shock). Most reactions occur after ingestion, though mild reactions can occur after contact.
Symptoms of peanut allergies in babies include:
- Blotchiness around the mouth
- Immediate runny nose
- Itchy/watery eyes
- Choking or gagging
- Wheezing/trouble breathing
Anaphylaxis is the most severe reaction to a peanut allergy and can be fatal. In some instances, an allergic reaction may also be mistaken for an intolerance. If your baby has breathing difficulties after consuming peanuts (even a trace), call 911.
Peanut allergies are scary, but the LEAP study suggests that our babies’ immune systems can learn to accept peanut protein.
The LEAP Study: What It Set Out to Do
LEAP stands for Learning Early About Peanut allergy. LEAP is a study that was conducted between 2006 and 2014 by the Immune Tolerance Network in England. It set out to examine whether regular consumption of peanut products during infancy would help avoid an allergic reaction.
LEAP studied 640 babies between the ages of 4 and 11 months who already had an existing allergy. The babies included in the study already had severe eczema and/or an egg allergy. These babies were chosen because they are considered high-risk for a peanut allergy.
All participants had a skin-prick test to test for an existing peanut allergy before taking part. Only children that had a negative result or very slight positive were allowed to take part.
The children were randomly divided into two groups: consumption and avoidance. Children in the consumption group consumed 6g (about 0.21 ounces) of peanut protein each week in 3+ doses. They did this until they reached the age of 5.
Children in the avoidance group did not consume any peanut protein for the duration of the study.
What the LEAP Study Found & Continued Study
The results of the LEAP study were published in 2015 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The results showed that infants and children who consumed peanut protein were less likely to develop a peanut allergy.
Since publication, the LEAP study has continued to work with these children. They have found that children in the consume group retain their peanut protein tolerance, even if they haven’t eaten peanut protein for a year.
The LEAP team is now carrying out further clinical trials as part of the LEAP Trio Study to determine three main points of interest:
- how long-lasting the effect of early childhood exposure to peanut actually is
- whether this type of therapy impacts siblings’ risk of developing a peanut allergy
- whether parental characteristics impact the development of a peanut allergy
3 Things to Remember from the LEAP Study
Regular Consumption of Peanut From 4 Months Significantly Reduces Risk of a Peanut Allergy
Exposure to peanuts early in a baby’s life significantly reduces the risk of developing a peanut allergy. This is even the case in infants with an allergy to egg, severe eczema, or both. Only 3% of children in the “consumption” group developed a peanut allergy by the time they reached 5 years old. 17% of the children in the “avoidance” group developed a peanut allergy during this time.
This decrease in risk is significant and highlights the benefit of giving your baby peanut products from 4 months old.
Peanut Intake Can Be Minimal and Still Be Beneficial
The children in the consumption group were only required to consume 6g of peanut protein each week, spread out in 3+ smaller doses. This works out to the equivalent of approximately 3 peanuts a week.
This shows that even a very small amount of peanut protein can help your child avoid a severe peanut allergy.
What if your baby already shows signs of a peanut allergy or if they are over 11 months old?
If you believe your baby may have a peanut allergy, contact your pediatrician for a test. Peanut allergies are among the most severe, so it’s not worth the risk. As we mentioned above, a simple pin-prick test will tell you if peanut products are safe for your baby or not.
If your baby is already over 11 months old, the same applies. If they already have another allergy, get a pin-prick test before giving them peanut products. The LEAP study suggests that the later you introduce peanut products, the more at risk your child may be.
Can parents apply LEAP principles to other foods?
It is generally considered a good idea to introduce your child to as many new foods as possible early in life. However, you shouldn’t draw any conclusions based on other foods from this study alone.
Another study, known as the SPADE study, found similar findings with an allergy to cow’s milk. On the other hand, the EAT study, which examined a wide array of foods, was not able to make conclusions about certain allergenic foods.
More research needs to be done to understand how our bodies develop allergies. You should exercise caution when introducing your infant or child to any common allergen.
Key Takeaways for Parents
- you can reduce the chances of your child developing a peanut allergy
- the earlier you can introduce peanuts into your infant’s diet, the better off they will be (LEAP studied babies from 4 months old)
- peanut intake only needs to be as little as 6g per week (in smaller daily doses) to be effective in preventing the development of a peanut allergy
- delaying introduction of allergenic foods may put your child at a greater risk for developing food allergies
The LEAP study shows us that introducing peanuts early in life significantly reduces their risk of developing a peanut allergy later. The more studies like this that give us positive results, the more able we are as parents to ensure our children grow up with food freedom and a better quality of life.
All health-related content on this website is for informational purposes only and does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the advice of your own pediatrician in connection with any questions regarding your baby’s health.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.