Millions of American youngsters suffer from peanut allergies. However, mounting evidence suggests that feeding peanut-containing foods to infants reduces the risk of developing the allergy. That's changed the way experts advise parents to approach the divisive nut.
A recent study showed that kids who were introduced to peanuts when young had up to an 81% lower risk of developing peanut allergies than those who were not. That led the National Institutes of Health to revamp its official guidelines on the matter. Now, the NIH recommends that parents introduce peanut-containing foods into the diets of babies as young as 4 to 6 months—a far cry from the previous medical opinion that avoiding the nuts altogether was the best option.
The hope is that introducing peanuts early enough to children who might be allergic to them will help them to build a tolerance and prevent an allergy from developing.
The new recommendations also offer guidance on safely introducing peanuts into a baby’s diet. For babies with severe eczema and egg allergies—which increase the risk of peanut allergy—NIH advises introducing peanuts at about four to six months, just as the baby is transitioning to solid foods. To make sure they don’t have a severe reaction, the panel advises that the peanuts be given in the doctor’s office.
For babies with mild to moderate eczema, and those without any known allergic reactions, the guidelines say that parents can introduce peanuts gradually at home, beginning at six months.
In all cases, experts suggest avoiding whole peanuts until 5 years of age due to choking hazards.
“We anticipate that if this works as well as we think it will, it will drop not only the incidence and prevalence of peanut allergy, but also the host of problems that come with having a food allergy,” says Dr. Matthew Greenhawt, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of the University of Colorado, and chair of the food allergy committee of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, told TIME.
“Food allergies are associated with a poor quality of life, high cost to the patient and society, fear, anxiety and self-imposed restrictions," he added. "By preventing the allergy we also prevent this whole host of adverse things that accompany having a food allergy.”