As I watched my son totter around the playgroup, I couldn't pay attention to what the other mums were saying as my eyes were scanning the room for dangers. A discarded coffee cup, a child's milk bottle, crumbs of cake – they could all be life threatening to my child. Like up to 7% of children in the UK, he has food allergies.
As a mum, keeping our children safe is the number one priority. So when you realise a simple food could make them seriously ill, it can turn your world upside down. It's all too easy to want to hide away, stop socialising and keep them in a nice, safe, bubble but the reality is, we have to do the opposite and we have to teach them how to live life alongside their allergies.
My son is now an energetic, imaginative 8 year old and we've come a long way from those early days. Although he may no longer pick up food off the floor, navigating the dangers of food allergies is still a daily part of life and I've had to learn to manage the anxiety that comes with it.
Choose the right information
It's important to educate yourself, your child and any caregivers about food allergies so you know how to stay safe and what to do if they have a reaction. There is so much information available and it can be overwhelming. Stick to trusted sources and try to limit your intake from online forums or media stories, as this can just fuel your fears.
Learn to grieve
Any long term or life threatening health diagnosis comes with a grieving process. With allergies, you often grieve the life you thought you would live with your child and the sponteneity and simple joy of eating out wihout worrying. This is a normal and natural process and it's not until you have worked through those feelings that you can accept the situation and adapt to your new normal.
Let go of the guilt
Mum guilt is real! We all feel it for a mutlitude of reasons but with allergies it can often be linked to not recognosing the symptoms, your breastfeeding journey or accidently giving them a food that caused a reaction. We also often question why our child has allergies. Should have eaten something different during pregnancy? Should we started weaning earlier or later? Try to remember - t's not your fault.
Have a plan in place
A lot of the anxiety of living with food allergies is worrying about a reaction and knowing what to do. Talk to your doctor about creating a care plan or use one from the BSACI website. This will give you the symptoms to look out for and clear steps to follow. You can then share this with friends, family or caregivers. If your child requires adrenaline injectors, make sure everyone is trained in how to use them. You can get a trainer pen from your doctor or from the manufacturers' websites. Adrenaline injectors are really easy to use but practicing with one means you will feel calmer and more confident in an emergency.
Build your support network
It can feel lonely when your child is diagnosed with a food allergy. It often means you have a very different experience of motherhood to your friends so it is important to find other people who understand. Look at support groups through Anaphylaxis Campaign, join a forum on Facebook or ask at your local playgroup to find other parents to talk to.
Empower your child
It is never too early to teach your child about their food allergy. The best way to do it is through role play, reading or baking safe treats together. so you can educate them in a fun and age appropriate way. The more you normalise their allergies and make them part of their every day life, the less scary or confusing it will be for them. This will help them communicate their needs at nursery or school, and make you less anxious to leave them with other people.
Talk about it
If your child does have a reaction, take time to process what happened and build your confidence and trust back up. Look at what you learnt from the experience, what went right and what you could change in the future. Try to involve your child in this process and talk to them about any of their worries so they feel able to express their feelings too.
I'm not going to tell you the anxiety completely goes away, because it doesn't, but I will tell you that things get easier. Eight years in, we travel, eat out and do all the things any other family does – we just sometimes needs to do things slightly differently!
About the author
Emma is mum to two children with food allergies and lives down a bumpy farm track in Bedfordshire. She is the author of Living With Allergies: Practical Tips For All The Family and children's book You, Me & Food Allergies – both endorsed by Allergy UK. She is currently studying a masters in the psychology and neuroscience of mental health to develop a platform to support people with long term and life threatening health conditions.