Discovering your child's food allergies can be a frightening experience—whether the reaction is anaphylaxis, projectile vomiting, hives, eczema, or asthma. You will visit doctors, get prescriptions, change your child's diet (and probably that of the whole family as well), work out new recipes and snacks, and finally get in the groove with a system. But every food allergy parent is faced with two situations that must be managed carefully: birthday parties and school. How can you keep your child safe? The severity of a child's allergy is key to the steps you take; but even a non-life-threatening allergy can result in missed school, doctor visits, medications, and embarrassment for your child—all of which you want to avoid.
Obviously, as children grow they can take on more responsibility for the management of their allergy. There are some important things that even the youngest severely food-allergic child should be taught: never accept food from anyone mom or dad has not approved, never trade food (despite school rules, kids are kids and like to trade and share), and don't be afraid to tell people about your allergy. It is important to notice how well your child follows these simple rules—and carefulness may change over time.
The parent is a child's best advocate. Be prepared to offer solutions when you want to see change, and accept that some people will not take you (or school rules and regulations) seriously.
What kid doesn't love a birthday party?! Though tons of fun, birthday parties can be the least controllable experience for the food-allergic family. There will be people you don't know and who don't know your child; lots of food; food from different sources; and a home, event center, or park that is unfamiliar.
• Tell the party parent what your child is allergic to and find out if it will be served.
• If the party is a drop-off party, offer to stay and help (and then help, don't just hover).
• Bring your own food; if it helps your child, "match" your food—bring a cupcake if the host is serving cupcakes.
• Watch out for guests bringing food; the host may not be aware this food is coming.
• Do not accept food for your child without checking ingredients; many people are not aware that food additives can be derived from common allergens. Be careful with homemade items that may be cross-contaminated.
• Bring wipes if needed to clean surfaces
• For very young children, you can purchase or make "I have food allergy" stickers for your child to wear.
In school, you will have a team of adults looking out for your child. Work with everyone to make it as easy and clear as possible.
• Notify the teachers, room parents, school nurse, office staff, and lunchroom staff of the allergy; depending on the severity, you may want to request a meeting including the principal. Do not assume that anything put on a health form will be looked at except in case of emergency.
• If your child requires epipens, inhalers, or other medications be kept at school, offer to lead or host a session on their use. Learn where they are kept, and confirm that all adults know where to find them and how to get them.
• Consider alerting parents in your child's class of the allergy—the school will likely consider this private information, but you can choose to share. Your child's classmates are also a line of defense—if one child offers to trade, another may recognize the danger.
• Suggest non-food treats for birthdays—a new book gifted to the class library goes over well with teachers, and the kids enjoy having the birthday parent come in and read all or part of it.
• Be aware of holiday parties and awards parties—you may face classroom food at Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Valentine's Day, and more—and pizza and ice cream parties for pledge drives, laps run, books read. Send a food substitute with your child, be part of the planning group (then you can make sure gluten-free pizza or a dairy-free dessert is available), or find out if you can have some freezer space to keep some safe foods in.
• Accept that even with "no trading" food rules, kids will trade or share, and may be sneaky. Work with your child to never accept a trade or freebie if their allergy warrants that level of care.
• In cases of severe allergies, you may want to get a 504 plan to outline protocols for keeping your child safe.
The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network has great resources for parents, kids, teachers, and schools available on its website.