For parents of a child with food allergies, the thought of sending them out into others’ care—six or seven hours a day in school—can be downright frightening. This crash course on managing food allergies at school should put you at the head of the class.
Food Allergies 101
Food allergies are on the rise. A survey published last year in the journal Pediatrics found that one in every 12 children in the United States has food allergies and nearly 39 percent of those with allergies have suffered a severe reaction. Most food allergies start early in life and some can be outgrown. Allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish usually persist a lifetime. Know that allergies produce an immune response to a substance, while food intolerance interferes with the ability to digest specific foods.
A family history lesson might reveal your child’s risk. When both parents have allergies, kids have a 75 percent chance of being allergic. Only 10 to 15 percent of children develop allergies when mom and dad are allergy-free.
Do you have a lesson plan?—>
If you haven’t already done so, meet with school officials. “Develop a good rapport with the school team and notify them of your child’s needs,” says allergy/immunology specialist, Catherine Monteleone, MD, associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. If your child doesn’t have a written Food Allergy Action Plan, ask your doctor to prepare one. The plan should include allergies, symptoms, treatment, emergency contact numbers, and any other information specific to your child’s condition.
Schedule an appointment to introduce your child to the school nurse. Bring along any required medications and a letter from the allergist or pediatrician. “Provide an EpiPen for emergency treatment if your child is exposed to a known allergen, and make sure there’s more than one person that can use it,” says Dr. Monteleone.
Talk to your child at home about his food allergies and reinforce information that’s been covered in the past. “Your child has to be involved and understand his allergy. It’s important to start teaching him very young,” says Dr. Monteleone.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network recommends that you cover the following topics with your allergic child:
- Know your symptoms – Explain allergic reactions in kid-friendly terms your child can understand. Stress the importance of reporting symptoms to a responsible adult.
- Don’t swap snacks – This is one time when it’s not okay to share. Warn your child not to trade snacks or eat anything that hasn’t been approved by an adult.
- Prepare for emergencies – If your child is old enough, instruct him on using an EpiPen and have one available at all times. Teach him to never let friends handle medications.
- Talk about it – Tell your child not to be shy about saying she has food allergies. Tell her to let others know why she can’t accept food.
Lunches, snacks, and parties—>
Lunches, Snacks, and Parties
Many parents prefer to send their child to school with food prepared at home. However, if your child will be eating in the cafeteria, inquire into food-allergy policies and be sure to include the food-service staff in any meetings you have concerning your child’s allergies.
“Some parents of children with food allergies sign up to be the class mom every year so they can be present at parties,” says Dr. Monteleone. If you can’t be there, she suggests providing a list of foods that are safe for your child to eat. Consider supplying your own snacks for classroom celebrations, and discuss the possibility of banning certain foods. Finally, check to see if there is a “no food on the bus” policy.
Successful management of food allergies at school requires the cooperation of everyone involved. Even parents of children who don’t have allergies can help by asking about allergies in the classroom and following safety rules. With everyone working together, hopefully all children can enjoy happy, healthy days at school.
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Nita Crighton is a registered nurse and mom of three from Harding Township.