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Food Allergies in Babies and Toddlers
Allergies are very common and can cause serious reactions. A baby’s digestive and immune systems must be sufficiently developed before solid foods are introduced. Introducing solid foods too soon or foods that may cause problems too soon will put a strain on the baby’s immature systems. When introducing solid foods, you should be aware of the possibility of allergic reactions. This article outlines the symptoms of allergic reactions and how to minimize them in babies.
In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the number of diseases and complaints that can be caused or favored by the presence of allergies. Allergies are very common. Conservative estimates are that twenty percent of the population is allergic to something. However, when considering minor allergies such as hay fever, minor eczema and food intolerances, the true incidences of allergies and/or intolerances may well be much higher. It is believed that changes in the Western diet over the past 100 to 200 years – particularly the refining of foods, the use of food additives and the increased consumption of animal products and the presence of environmental pollution , have largely contributed to the prevalence of all forms of allergic disease.
What is an allergy?
The word means “impaired reaction” and an allergic person usually suffers from physical symptoms (such as headaches and migraines, vomiting, skin rashes, asthma) when they come into contact with substances to which they are sensitive. The substance that causes the reaction is called an allergen and can be house dust, dog or cat fur, food(s), chemical(s) or bacteria – to only cite a few. In this article, we look at food allergies.
When introducing solid foods, a baby may have an “allergic reaction” to wheat, for example, and develop diarrhea, abdominal colic, grunting, a runny nose, even a mild ear infection, asthma or eczema. The cause of these symptoms is often not recognized and can even be treated as a transient infection if the problem is a runny nose or ear pain. The offending food will continue to be offered and the infant usually recovers from acute symptoms, although there may be relatively minor persistent symptoms. At a later stage (days, months, years later), either following periods of infection or stress, or simply due to a progressive inability to maintain good health, symptoms develop.
If the food is removed, the symptoms usually disappear within three to five days, although sometimes, especially in children, it can take up to three weeks. There may also be marked withdrawal symptoms that eventually go away.
When introducing new foods to babies and toddlers, you should be aware of allergy symptoms. This is especially the case when parents or other family members have food allergies.
What does a food allergy look like in a baby or toddler?
Symptoms associated with food allergies are legion and can mimic a whole range of different clinical conditions. It depends on the baby or toddler. Some of the symptoms babies and toddlers develop include:
- an itchy mouth and throat,
- skin rashes, eczema and hives,
- cramps and colic,
- nausea and vomiting,
- diarrhea or constipation,
- wheezing, sneezing, runny nose,
- unusual crying,
- shortness of breath,
- hyperactivity and
- sleep disturbances.
In extreme cases, a child can develop a life-threatening condition called anaphylactic shock. Severe symptoms or reactions to any allergen require immediate medical attention.
What are the common causes of food allergies?
Foods most likely to cause an allergy include:
- wheat, rye, oats, barley, maize (maize),
- cow’s milk and other dairy products,
- chicken eggs and chicken meat,
- cane and beet sugar,
- fish and shellfish,
- dyes and preservatives,
- chocolate, and
What can you do?
Here are two things you can do as a parent to reduce your baby’s susceptibility to food allergies and reduce the severity of food allergies:
- Wait until your baby is at least 6 months old to introduce solid foods.
- Apply the 4-day wait rule when introducing new foods to your baby.
Waiting until your baby is 6 months old
Babies are not born with an adult digestive system and they cannot handle food and will not digest it properly until their digestive system has matured, between 4 and 6 months. Before that, your baby should only have breast milk or formula. Waiting until your baby is 6 months old to give him solid foods will give him the best chance of actually being able to digest food, and gentle digestion reduces the risk of allergies.
The 4 day waiting rule
When you start giving your baby solid foods, you need to make sure that the food does not cause a reaction. Sometimes it can take three or four days for a reaction to show.
Introduce one food at a time, then wait four days before introducing another food.
It is worth keeping a food diary, noting which foods are introduced and when. This information can be very helpful later on if your baby develops some sort of reaction that could be attributed to infection or upset, or wind or whatever, although it could actually be a food reaction. If you also note when particular problems start, quite often you can identify the offending food, exclude it from the baby’s diet, and have a healthy, happy baby.
If there is a family history of food intolerance, it is recommended to avoid the introduction of cow’s or wheat’s milk until the baby is twelve months old or even older. (If you introduce these foods, but that’s another issue.)
Allergies are very common and can cause serious reactions. A baby’s digestive and immune systems must be sufficiently developed before solid foods are introduced. Introducing solid foods too soon or foods that may cause problems too soon will put a strain on the baby’s immature systems. When introducing solid foods, you should be aware of the possibility of allergic reactions and if you suspect a reaction, stop giving this food and give the baby more time to mature. Although the details above are intended to be generally helpful and educational, they should not be construed as a substitute for individual advice from a medical professional. You should see a professional if your child’s allergy is sudden, extreme, long-lasting, or not improving.
Bland, J. 1996, Contemporary Nutrition. J & B Associates.
Davies, S. and A. Stewart, 1997, Nutritional Medicine. Stove.
Elliot, N. 2004, Green Peace. Practical parenting.
Holden, S., Hudson, K., Tilman, J. & D. Wolf, 2003, Nature’s Ultimate Guide to Health. Publication of Astrolog.
Pressman, A. and S. Buff, 2000, The Idiot’s Complete Guide to Vitamins and Minerals. (2nd ed.) Alpha Books.
Soothill, R. 1996, The Guide to Choosing Vitamins and Minerals. A book publication of choice.
Sullivan, K. 2002, Vitamins and minerals: a practical approach to a healthy diet and safe supplementation. Harper Collins.
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