Home icon

Food Allergies and Young Children

teacher sitting at child's table in school setting, surrounded by children

In this episode, we talk with Dr. Ruchi Gupta and Sarah Valaika from the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research (CFAAR) about caring for children with food allergies in the early childhood classroom.

More About Our Guests

Dr. Gupta is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, clinical attending at Anne and Robert H. Lurie Children’s hospital in Chicago, and the founding director of the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR) at these institutions. Dr. Gupta is also a food allergy mom herself.

Sarah Valaika currently serves as the program coordinator of Early Childhood Food Allergy Initiatives at CFAAR and has over 25 years of experience in early childhood education, and is also a food allergy mom. So thank you so much to both of you for being with us today.



Intro: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Natalie Danner.

Natalie Danner: Welcome to the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. Today we are talking about food allergies and young children. We are joined by Dr. Ruchi Gupta and Sarah Valaika. Dr. Gupta is a professor of pediatrics and medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, clinical attending at Anne and Robert H. Lurie Children’s hospital in Chicago, and the founding director of the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR) at these institutions. Dr. Gupta is also a food allergy mom herself.

Sarah Valaika currently serves as the program coordinator of Early Childhood Food Allergy Initiatives at CFAAR and has over 25 years of experience in early childhood education, and is also a food allergy mom. So thank you so much to both of you for being with us today.

Sarah Valaika: Thanks for having us.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta: Thank you.

Natalie Danner: Great. Well, today we’re eager to hear from you both as experts in food allergy research and as food allergy parents because our listeners want to learn ways to handle children’s food allergies in early childhood classrooms. So let’s get started with the basics. Dr. Gupta, how many young children in the United States have food allergies, and what are some of the most common foods associated with these food allergies?

Dr. Ruchi Gupta: Yes, so food allergies have been increasing over generations, and we all know this, because, you know, we talk about when we were young, we didn’t see this as much. You know, everyone took peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to school, but now with what we know, the most recent numbers are that about 8% of kids have food allergies. So about 1 in 13, and about two in every classroom. So, it is, you know, we’ve been calling it a food allergy epidemic because a lot has changed in just one generation.

The top foods, you can be allergic to any food, but we have a top nine, and those are the most common food allergens. So those include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, shellfish, fin fish, soy, wheat, and No. 9, which is moving up fast, is sesame. You know, it’s very, very important with these nine food allergens that we help empower our kids to read food labels. Food labels can be very confusing, but as of this year, all nine of those allergens must be clearly labeled by law on all packages. So, they’re either bolded in the ingredients, or it says “contains” these foods, so make sure, even sesame. Sesame got passed this year, so now sesame needs to be labeled as well.

Another really important thing is to help your kids and yourself like, understand what cross contact is and how to avoid cross contact. All food allergies, of course, need to be taken seriously, and food allergies are different by age group. So, in really young children, infants and kids under 5, you really see a lot of milk allergy. That is the top allergen by far, milk and egg.

And then as kids get older and start trying new foods, you see those peanuts and tree nuts coming on, and then shellfish and fin fish. Wheat and soy are also somewhat early allergens, and sesame depending on when they try it. But it’s very, very important for parents, for childcare providers to really, really understand food allergies because it is so common and really very difficult to avoid, since food is a part of everything we do.

Natalie Danner: It’s so true. Food is so much a part of the early childhood classroom when it comes to snacks and lunch and sometimes breakfast, too. At the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research (CFAAR), there’s even a fun song that you teach educators to sing with the children in the classroom to help them navigate food allergies, too. Can you tell us about it, Sarah?

Sarah Valaika: Sure, we do have a fun song. Something to remember about this age is that they can’t read yet. So we want them to read labels. They’re not ready for that. So what we heard from early childhood professionals and parents is that they wanted to know how do you talk to infants, toddlers, and preschoolers? And so what we did is we use developmentally appropriate language. Key concepts that are concrete words that are action-oriented. So stop, look, ask, go. And they might not grasp all four of those at the same time. However, they’re learning those terms and those concepts throughout their day, everything that they’re doing at this age.

So we want children to stop before they eat. Look at the food. Ask an adult if it’s okay and go if the adult says it’s okay. So what we did is to increase awareness of food allergy safety, and to involve all the children, because they all can benefit from these simple steps, is we put those terms and that message to the tune of head, shoulders, knees, and toes, which is a song sung in most, if not all, early childhood programs. It has hand gestures to go with it. And preverbal children can enjoy it. And I think staff can benefit from repeating the message themselves.

Natalie Danner: I think that’s a really fun way of teaching some of these skills of really thinking about how to be careful and thoughtful about what to do before you really ingest something. So that’s a really great way to think about how to make that snack and mealtime safer. So, thanks for answering that, Sarah.

So let’s move on back to Dr. Gupta. What else can educators do to support children with food allergies? What are some strategies, especially for educators who might deal with multiple different allergies in one classroom? This is a question that we get from some of our educators out there who might be struggling with multiple children in their classroom with multiple allergies.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta: Yes, that’s a great question. And first, you know, I commend educators. They have a very, very busy, you know, challenging job and adding food allergies to that is complicated and helping to keep these kids safe at such a young age, where they can’t always communicate with you. So, some important things that we try to support is really understanding what are the signs and symptoms of a food allergic reaction? And so this is really really important, because it’s also very confusing, because food allergies aren’t as simple as asthma. Right? It’s not that, just you know, it’s gonna be something with breathing. It’s actually can impact any organ system, you know.

So, knowing that if they see a young child feeling uncomfortable or restless, developing hives, vomiting, those are the most common ones of symptoms in young children. But it can also include trouble breathing or kind of a dizziness or fainting. So, really understanding those signs and symptoms. And then making sure every child in their care has an emergency action plan. Now, what this does is, it clearly states their allergens, what signs and symptoms to look out for, and what to do in case they accidentally ingest that food and have a reaction.

And then, you know, one of the things that they really need to practice, which we all do. You know, even us as parents. And even though I do this every day, it’s really important to keep training yourself on using epinephrine auto injectors. And they’re all different. And so you know, these educators may have kids with different epinephrine auto injectors, and you use them all just slightly differently. The common thing is, there’s a cap somewhere you pull off, and you put it in the lateral thigh and hold it for somewhere between two to four seconds, for most of them. So that’s what’s in common.

But knowing which ones they have, because they’re all slightly different. And in an emergency situation, you know, it’s kind of a panicky situation, and you want to make sure you’re trained, and you know what to do. But having those epinephrine auto injectors ready, knowing how to use them, and don’t be scared to use them. I think that’s a big piece, because sometimes we’re waiting. Is this really serious? But if you’re in doubt at all. If that child is struggling, go ahead and use that epinephrine auto injector. And then, you know, similarly, have these drills, have, you know, practice runs where you can be very confident that if it were to happen that you’re ready and prepared.

Natalie Danner: Wow! That sounds like some really good tips for teachers, especially the parts about formal communication from parents and really keeping up on that ongoing training for teachers. And Sarah, when it comes to communication, since we just talked about that with Dr. Gupta, what are some of those things that teachers can do to better communicate with parents of children with food allergies?

Sarah Valaika: I think something that’s really important that teachers can do is to communicate with parents and openness to learn about food allergies. And in a moment of a food allergy reaction or something, a situation, to stay calm. And that’s easier said than done, So, I think practicing like mindfulness or breathing strategies is a good practice for any teacher. But it’s important to stay calm for the teacher and for the child in that moment. But ultimately, just being a positive food allergy role model includes all those things.

From that I’d say that one really easy thing to do because it’s free and it’s online now, is that we created a free online training. We created it with the National Food Allergy Research and Education Fair. We created this for early childhood professionals. And in the state of Illinois, it’s aligned with Illinois Gateways, Illinois State Board of Ed, and Early Intervention Training Programs. So, they can get professional development hours for taking the training. But this training, it’s called, “Stop, Look, Ask, Go: Food Allergy Education for Early Childhood Professionals.” It just is a way to stay close to the content.

You might not have a child with food allergies in your setting right now, but you might. So be ready. But in that training, we talk about the importance of talking to parents and using a checklist. And it’s linked in that program. It’s also on our websites as well. But we created a checklist for teachers in early childhood programs to guide the conversation, because it’s important to ask parents questions to inform you and your work. But it’s also important for parents to offer information, too. It’s a conversation. Early childhood, at the heart of our early childhood is relationships. So, that starts within this moment quite frankly.

Also Illinois Early Learning, shout out to you, we partnered with you to create and update one of your food allergy tip sheets. It’s called “Food Allergy Awareness,” and I think that’s something, that’s a wonderful resource. It’s translated into seven languages. And I know in many early childhood programs across the state, people pass out your tip sheets on multiple topics. So this is something teachers can do so easily is just send it home periodically. And I’m sure you can provide more information on how they can access those tip sheets.

Further, in all of our resources and on the CFAAR website, also, it’s part of that, you can access it through the training, which is good for parents, too, I should add. But one thing we learn is that parents of children without food allergies really want to help, and we were surprised by how high that number was. But they do, they don’t know what they can do. And remember your children, if you’re a parent or teacher, your children, you want playdates. You know NAEYC calls for a caring community of learners. If you want to create that, you want friendships to emerge and to come together.

So we created a two-minute parent-to-parent video that explains food allergies to a parent who does not have a child with food allergies. And that’s a YouTube link, you can pull it from our website and share it in your e-newsletters, on your Facebook page, or however you communicate with families. It’s also for families. If you’re going to a birthday party or play date, you can maybe just send the link over ahead of time, so that you’re not greeting, you know, at the door and trying to go through food allergies in that moment. So it’s just, it’s a good resource, and it’s a free resource available to anyone.

Natalie Danner: Some great resources that you shared there. I really appreciate that Sarah, especially thinking about how a teacher can really inform their mindset in being mindful and calm, even though there could be a stressful event happening in their own classroom with a child with a food allergy.

And we will definitely be linking that training that you talk about with the “Stop, Look, Ask, and Go” training as well as the tip sheet. So, thank you so much for having that shout out for the tip sheet that we developed together. So that one is called “Food Allergy Awareness.” And we will have that linked in the bottom of this website, so that everyone can access that as well. So for our final question here, Dr. Gupta, where can educators and parents go to find some more information on food allergies in early childhood classrooms?

Dr. Ruchi Gupta: Yes, and I appreciate us being able to pass out resources, because I want all parents and educators to know they’re not alone. And I feel like as parents, you know, a lot of these parents are gonna be new parents to food allergies. And as Sarah and I both know, it is really scary, you know, and I’m telling you this as this is all I do all my life, you know, I see patients with it. I do research on it, but it’s still very scary. And, if your child, you know you’re always worried about it because food is everywhere. And so just know, like you’re not alone.

I think a couple of things, I’ll tell you. But, like connect with other parents, you know, and join support groups, because I think that really helped me early on, especially when your child is so young, you know. And know that you have the support of other parents in your classroom and the educators. So, some places you can go, our website for sure. We are the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research, and this is one of our missions to help families feel safe and educated and empowered. So please come to our website, it’s cfaar.northwestern.edu. We have all those amazing resources that Sarah helped develop for early childcare centers and for parents.

But there’s other very, you know, large support groups out there, and some of them are FARE, who we also mentioned, and that’s F-A-R-E. But there’s others. There’s fact FAACT, F-A-A-C-T. And there’s AAFA, A-A-F-A. And there’s Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (AAN). So, we’ll share all these resources. But there’s a lot of organizations. They offer different things.

So kind of looking around on their website and seeing what could be helpful, you know, for you and your world is a great idea. So you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we’re always here. If anyone needs support, please, you know, reach out to us at CFAAR, and we’ll try to get you whatever resources you need.

Natalie Danner: Thank you so much. And I’ll also mention some resources that Illinois Early Learning has as well, which we will link also on our website. Two of the great resources created in partnership with the Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research. The first one is a blog called “How the Game Red Light, Green Light, Can Help us Talk to Young Children about Food Allergies,” and it’s all about the song we mentioned earlier. There’s even a video of the song being sung, linked in the blog. So you can get that tune that Sarah was talking about. And the second is the one that we mentioned, which was the tip sheet called “Food Allergy Awareness,” which was what Sarah was talking about, which is perfect to share with parents. And it’s available in seven languages.

So those resources, as well as the ones that Dr. Gupta and Sarah mentioned will be linked on our website for you to find as well. So Dr. Gupta and Sarah, I wanted to thank you for being our guests on the Illinois Early Learning Podcast. It’s been a really informative episode, and I have learned absolutely so much about food allergies and young children. So thank you.

Sarah Valaika: Thank you for having us.

Dr. Ruchi Gupta: Yeah, we really appreciate it. Always here.

Natalie Danner: Thank you. And until next time, keep early learning at the forefront.

You have just heard a podcast by the Illinois Early Learning Project. For more information, please visit us at illinoisearlylearning.org where you can find evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

IEL Resources

Resource List: Caring for Children with Food Allergies

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2024