Food Allergies: How Common Are They? And Who’s Most At Risk?

It’s important to have a good understanding of food allergies before baby starts eating solids. Check out this explainer for everything you need to know.

Food Allergies: Everything You Need to Know

Is it time for your baby to start eating solid food? Whether you’re diving in with baby led weaning or trying your hand at homemade purees, it’s a good idea to think about food allergies in babies before you begin?!

It’s helpful to start with the basics—to have a solid understanding of what food allergies are, how prevalent they really are, and factors that increase your child’s risk of developing a food allergy.

What Is a Food Allergy?

A food allergy occurs when your body reacts to certain proteins in certain foods.

When a person (adult or baby) has an allergy to a certain protein, the presence of that allergen can trigger an adverse immune response. (source) Though many people think of hives when they think about food allergies, according to a study published in the Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology, food allergies can affect the body in many ways. When it comes to food allergies in babies hives, eczema, and even colic are all effects of the body’s immune response. (source)

How Common Are Food Allergies?

If it seems like you’re reading about more and more about food allergies, you’re not imagining it. Food allergies are increasing each year.

  • According to an article published in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, about 8 percent of babies have food allergies (5% of adults), but that number is projected to increase annually. (source)
  • Another study, published in Clinical Reviews in Allergy & Immunology actually found a higher number: as many as 20 percent of babies are estimated to have food allergies. (source)

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The Most Common Food Allergies in Babies

Most food allergies in babies are caused by just eight allergens. The majority (90 percent) of babies with food allergies have one of the following allergies (source):

  1. Cow’s milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Peanuts
  4. Soy
  5. Wheat
  6. Tree nuts
  7. Fish
  8. Shellfish

Note: Cow’s milk, eggs, and peanuts are the most common of these allergies, accounting for nearly 80 percent of all food allergies, but milk and egg allergies are often outgrown. (source)

Risk Factors: What Causes Food Allergies?

Yikes! What is causing such an increase in food allergies? Children are more likely to develop allergies if they have a family history of allergies (source), but there are other factors at play here.

  • Eczema: Infants with eczema are 30 percent more likely to develop food allergies. (source)
  • Weak immune system: The Western Diet, lack of dirt exposure (i.e. playing outside), and poor gut health all contribute to an already vulnerable immune system. (Check out this post or this post for tips on strengthening you or your child’s immune system.)
  • Vitamin D insufficiency: Lacking this vitamin has been linked to many conditions including low mood and increased risk of food allergies. (source)
  • Timing for introducing food: Introducing food (especially grains) too early can affect your baby’s digestive system due to an immature gut. (source)

Signs of Food Allergies in Babies

What if you suspect your baby already has an allergy? It’s possible that your baby can show signs of allergies before he’s even eating solids. If you notice rashes or eczema, it could be that your baby is sensitive to something you’re eating. When this happens, cow’s milk is a common culprit. (source)

Below are the most common signs of a food allergy in a baby who has not yet started solids:

  1. Rash
  2. Hives
  3. Atopic dermatitis
  4. Colic
  5. Runny nose
  6. Congestion
  7. Chronic diaper rash
  8. Dry skin
  9. Wheezing or asthma
  10. Red, itchy eyes
  11. Chronic ear infections
  12. Gastrointestinal upset (source)
  13. Body-wide diseases, such as enterocolitis and celiac disease (source)

Below are the most common signs of food allergies in babies and toddlers who consume solid food:

  1. Hives or welts on the body
  2. Rashes (on the body or in the diaper area)
  3. Itchy mouth (a toddler may even describe food as “spicy” for this reason)
  4. Facial swelling
  5. Vomiting
  6. Diarrhea
  7. Coughing
  8. Wheezing
  9. Difficulty breathing
  10. Swelling of the throat
  11. Fainting or loss of consciousness
  12. Lips turning blue

This list is provided by research from Food, Allergy, Research and Education. (source)

A note on anaphylaxis: The thought of anaphylaxis is scary, but you must remain vigilant. If your baby or toddler experiences facial swelling, difficulty breathing, or has severe vomiting, call 911 immediately.

How to Manage Food Allergies in Babies

You’ve probably noticed the increase in peanut-free classrooms and peanut-free lunch tables. This is a big movement towards helping young child (who may not be able to avoid allergens without the help of adults) stay safe at daycares and schools. But what can you do to manage an allergy in your home?

For mild allergies, your child’s pediatrician will likely create a treatment plan, which may include:

  • Avoiding the allergen
  • Keeping a journal to monitor your child’s system (many foods may take a few weeks to completely leave your child’s system)
  • An emergency plan that includes instructions about what to do if your child is exposed

For severe allergies, your child’s pediatrician may suggest:

  • Carrying an Epi-pen
  • Instructing your child’s teachers to use the pen
  • Creating an emergency plan
  • Removing the allergen from your house
  • Avoiding repeated exposure, since some allergies can get worse with each exposure

How to Prevent Food Allergies

Though there is no foolproof method for preventing food allergies, new research suggests early and sustained introduction is your best defense. In fact, three major studies suggest early introduction reduces the risk of developing food allergies by up to 80 percent. So what’s the safest way to introduce these foods?

Try a program, like Ready, Set, Food!

A program like Ready, Set, Food! can help you safely and effectively introduce common allergens, including peanuts, cow’s milk, and eggs. The allergist-developed system couldn’t be simpler—you simply mix pre-portioned powder into breast milk or your baby’s bottle. There’s no concern over whether you’re introducing the right amount, and there’s no need to calculate your own timeline—everything is ready to go. You can read the full review here.

Ready Set Food reduces the risk of developing food allergies by up to 80%

Read more about the introducing allergenic foods to babies.

Do Food Allergies Go Away?

If your baby does develop an allergy, there is good news: Not all allergies are lifelong. Some allergies (particularly egg and milk allergies) dissipate by the time your child reaches early childhood. On average, children  who outgrow a milk allergy do so by the time they turn 5.5 years old (or 66 months). (source) Unfortunately, if your child has not outgrown an allergy by the age of 10, it is unlikely that s/he will do so. (source)

On the other hand, certain allergies tend to be lifelong. This includes peanut, tree nut, and shellfish allergies. Less than 22 percent of children outgrow these allergies. (source) Since there is no cure for any of these food allergies, early introduction and sustained introduction as a form of prevention is so important—it’s your baby’s best defense against food allergies.

Genevieve Howland

About the Author

Genevieve Howland is a childbirth educator and breastfeeding advocate. She is the bestselling author of The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth and creator of the Mama Natural Birth Course. A mother of three, graduate of the University of Colorado, and YouTuber with over 130,000,000 views, she helps mothers and moms-to-be lead healthier and more natural lives.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this detailed post. My child suffered from a host of these problems until I pursued allergy testing. As a mom and Nurse Practitioner, I believe in encouraging moms to be more informed partners of their children’s health.

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