Sending toddlers off for the first time is emotional enough, but for parents of children with life-threatening food allergies, it is even more nerve-wracking.
Nearly 6 million children have food allergies with young children affected most, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Snack time is a danger zone for these kids -- especially the ones too young to read labels on their own. More than 15% of school-age children have had a reaction in school, the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network says.
When a child is diagnosed with food allergies, the whole family's diet often changes. But for parents with peanut-free kitchens or gluten-free cupboards, the real danger lies outside the home. Other adults often underestimate the danger these conditions pose or fail to recognize potentially harmful ingredients.
Sarah Chuck's son was diagnosed with food allergies at 1 year old. She brought him to the doctor at 9 months but was told his vomiting was a result of the flu. Now 8 years old, her son has had an EpiPen administered three times. EpiPens are kept on hand and in schools to administer emergency epinephrine, which opens airways in the lungs.
Chuck said the real danger is lack of awareness among adults distributing food, who often do not know the ingredients.
"At 3 years old he would say, 'I don't think I can have this.' He's always been pretty cautious,'' said Chuck. "The only times we've had problems is when adults have said, 'Oh, no, this is fine.' It's always the adults."
For that reason several groups are working to raise the awareness of children's food allergies. Jessica Brooks of Pleasanton has started a new website that offers information, resources and shirts to notify adult caretakers of specific children's allergies.
Brooks found out her youngest son Joseph had life-threatening food allergies when he was 18 months old. Two emergency room trips later she went into business to help parents like her put their minds at ease. Today she has a line of clothing called Check My Label, which children can wear to let everyone easily understand exactly what their allergies are.
"I created the shirts as a way to notify other caretakers of the danger certain foods pose to my son," Brooks said. "I wanted to remind babysitters, friends and even family that he can't eat everything my older son can -- and at the same time remind them to check food labels for those things. I wanted the shirts to be customizable for different foods and also cute, so wearing them isn't alienating."
Willie Victor, a nutritionist in Mill Valley and advocate with the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, echoed Brooks' sentiments on advocacy and awareness. She also emphasized the importance of getting children and the family involved in early on.
"Get kids involved and allow them to own (food allergies) so they aren't embarrassed by it," said Victor. "The child has to grow up understanding certain foods can be harmful to him."
More information on Brooks' company can be found at childrensallergyawareness.com. Information and resources for parents of children with allergies can be found through Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) at www.foodallergy.org.