- By James Gallagher
- Health and Science Correspondent
Giving young babies — between four and six months old — small tastes of smooth peanut butter can drastically reduce peanut allergies, scientists say.
Research shows that during weaning there is a crucial opportunity to reduce the number of allergic cases by 77%.
They say the government’s advice on weaning – which says no solid food until about six months – needs to change.
Experts warn that whole or chopped nuts and peanuts pose a choking risk and should not be given to children under five.
The current NHS guideline does say that peanuts (ground, ground or butter) can be introduced from around six months of age.
A baby is ready for his first solid food when:
- they can stay in a sitting position and hold their head steady
- coordinate their eyes, hands and mouth so that they can look at their food, pick it up and put it in their mouth
- swallow food instead of spitting it out
Why do food allergies occur?
Peanut allergy is on the rise in the UK and it is estimated that one in 50 children is now affected.
Food allergies are the result of our immune system mistaking something harmless for a serious threat.
For some, even a small amount of peanut can trigger such an overwhelming immune response that it becomes life-threatening.
Peanut allergy has become so common that some schools ban the ingredient.
There has long been advice to avoid foods that can trigger allergies during early childhood. At one point, families were once told to avoid peanuts until their child was three years old.
However, evidence from the past 15 years has turned that on its head.
Instead, eating peanuts while the immune system is still developing — and learning to recognize friend from foe — may reduce allergic reactions, experts say.
It also means that the body’s first experience of peanuts is in the belly, where it’s more likely to be recognized as food than on the skin, where it’s more likely to be treated as a threat.
Israel, where peanut snacks are common in early life, has far fewer allergies.
Other studies have suggested eating other foods linked to allergies — such as eggs, milk, and wheat — at an early stage also reduce allergy.
The analysis was carried out by the University of Southampton, King’s College London and the research arm of the NHS – the National Institute for Health and Care Research.
They found that the critical period to begin with was between four and six months, during which the allergy could be reduced by 77%.
That’s the equivalent of preventing 10,000 of the approximately 13,000 cases of peanut allergy each year.
According to the study, delaying the introduction of peanut-based foods until the child was one year old would only reduce the number of allergic cases by 33%.
For babies with eczema, a risk factor for allergy, the researchers recommend starting at four months – as long as the baby is ready.
They say parents should start by offering small amounts of fruits or vegetables.
Once the baby is comfortable, about three tablespoons of peanut butter per week should be introduced and maintained for years to come. Peanut butter, which can be quite dry, can be given with breast milk.
Professor Graham Roberts, from the University of Southampton, said decades of advice to avoid peanuts has “understandably led to parents’ fears” of giving children peanuts and changing rules have led to large amounts of confusion both within medicine and at the parents.
However, he said this was a “simple, low-cost, safe intervention” that would have “major benefits for future generations.”