I never worry about what my son eats. I worry about how big the bites are and if the food is too hot, but I'm never scared that he is going to have an allergic reaction. I guess I just always figured he was lucky.
However, he isn't the only lucky one — it's me, too. My nonchalant attitude when taking my son to a birthday party or the playground is just something I take for granted.
Or, rather, took for granted.
Since the news broke about Bamba coming to Trader Joe's, peanut butter lovers all over social media have been excited about getting the snack quickly and easily from their local Trader Joe's stores instead of having to go to the internet or specialty grocery stores.
However, there has also been talk among parents of kids with allergies — reminders to those of us who don't have kids with allergies that peanut snacks aren't safe for all and they can cause even the youngest allergy sufferers hives and worse, total anaphylaxis.
FARE, which describes itself as "the leading national organization working on behalf of the 15 million Americans with food allergies," estimates every one in 13 American kids under the age of 18 suffers from at least one food allergy.
I began to realize that my own experience with food wasn't everyone's — not even close. I should have been more aware before and I'm embarrassed that I wasn't. I want to let people who have kids with allergies know that those kids' health, emotional safety, and lives matter to me.
After speaking with parents of kids with severe allergies, I realize there are steps I can take to be a better ally and friend. These steps don't involve me banning allergen-heavy snacks from my kid's diet and they aren't difficult steps to take.
Here is some of what I gleaned from the parents I spoke to.
1. Feed your kids in appropriate places.
Do you ever wonder why there are signs in children's museums and playgrounds that say food should be kept off the premises? It's not just because it's a pain to clean up the crumbs — it's also because trace amounts of anything from peanuts to dairy can give some kids terrible allergic reactions.
Amanda, a 36-year-old mom to a son with allergies, says, "One time I was on the playground with some other moms and I noticed a pile of peanut shells (on the ground) and I just start to shake a little bit. I asked my friends to clean it up. People don't understand that on a playground in a public setting." If Amanda's son were to pick up those peanuts, she doesn't know what would happen — when he first had Bamba, he "blew up," and hasn't had peanuts since.
It's not about stopping your kids from eating, it's about having them eat in appropriate places. If your kid has a meltdown and positively needs something immediately, feeding them a snack in the stroller or carrier is much preferred to chasing them around while dropping and spraying residue everywhere. Which brings us to point number two.
2. Clean up after your kids.
When my son eats something (anything!), it's all over him — face, hands, hair, underwear, the whole shebang. I usually clean him with a wipe because he is gross, but in public, I should really be cleaning him because he could potentially be unsafe for other kids. Any trace of allergen could spread from him to the swing set or the coat of a kid with allergies and that could have catastrophic results.
Heather, whose toddler had an anaphylactic reaction after trying peanut butter for the first time says, "I always keep wipes with me and make sure I wipe surfaces if I know something has been contaminated with tree nuts or peanuts. I have asked people to be careful to clean up after themselves and wipe their hands."
NYC mom Sarah, who has a 16-month-old with allergies, says, "The residue on equipment from other children eating Bamba could be enough to cause our daughter to have a reaction and we cannot take the risk. It breaks our heart every time we have to leave the park or playroom because other children are eating Bamba, as it takes away a sense of normalcy, but our priority is her safety."
If we (the collective caretaker community) could make the playground safer just by wiping our kids' hands and faces before we let them play on the jungle gym, wouldn't we?
3. Don't brush off someone else's concern.
This is perhaps the most concerning thread through all of the caretakers I spoke with. Multiple stories of people brushing off concerns about allergies as though it were the same thing as a toddler not liking broccoli feels callous, to say the least. As Sarah says, "Negative and mean comments from other parents are frequent and devastating." My son loves Bamba, yet as Amanda puts it, "Is your child's right to have their preferred snack greater than my child's right to live or not go to the hospital?" No, actually. It's not.
4. Remember that peanuts aren't the only allergies.
Many of the parents I spoke to have kids with multiple allergies — sesame, lentil, dairy, and tree nuts were common. Just because you aren't carrying peanut butter in your diaper bag doesn't mean the kid sitting next to you at baby gym class is home free. If your kid is allergic to dairy or sesame, that bag of cheese crackers lying on the slide or a tub of hummus eaten on the swing set looks equally or more scary as any peanut snack.
Again, be aware of posted signs that ask you to keep food out of kid-trafficked areas.
5. Become the village.
This is a poignant plea from all the parents surveyed. When referring to the recent case of the young boy who died from eating a cheese sandwich at school, Heather says, "This terrifies me as a parent. I am so worried the same thing could happen to my son." We all have to watch out better for each others' kids.
Caretakers don't exist in a vacuum and kids certainly don't. We have got to start caring about allergies in other kids as if they were allergies in our own kids. Sarah says, "Being a food allergy parent is overwhelming and anxiety-provoking. We spend our days modeling low-anxiety behavior for our children, while suffering inside." I could imagine feeling the same way if it were my kid. If I can ease that anxiety by feeding my son peanut snacks at home instead of outside, wiping down his hands when he is done eating, and not letting him eat snacks on playground equipment, it seems like a very little price to pay for a possibly big reward.
Do you have any advice to share?