Food Sensitivity Symptoms in Toddlers

You want nothing more than for your new child to grow and thrive. Therefore, it can feel quite taxing when facing symptoms involving the daily activity of eating. Familiarize yourself with food sensitivities, also known as food intolerances, so you can feel empowered to better manage your child’s health and diet.

Key takeaways:
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    A food allergy is different than a food sensitivity or intolerance. A food allergy is life-threatening whereas sensitivity is not, though it may still cause uncomfortable symptoms.
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    Common food sensitivity symptoms in toddlers often show up as digestive discomfort or may also be expressed through behavior changes or inflammatory skin issues.
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    Food sensitivity testing is often unreliable. A step-by-step elimination diet is the current gold standard for identifying triggers and improving symptoms.
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    Seek emergent care if your child is having difficulty breathing, has hives or is showing signs of an allergy. See your pediatrician for sensitivity-type symptoms lasting longer than two weeks.

A food sensitivity is not a food allergy

A food allergy is a quick immune reaction that leads to rapid onset of systemic symptoms such as anaphylaxis, difficulty breathing, dizziness, digestive symptoms, or skin changes, such as hives, itching, or swelling.

Food intolerance or sensitivity is a less well-understood reaction but is more delayed, taking hours up to days to develop, and results in digestive symptoms first. The immune system may still be involved in food sensitivity, but it does not involve IgE antibodies as a food allergy does.

Common sensitivity symptoms

Toddlers often can’t express themselves verbally yet so it is up to parents to identify signs of sensitivity or intolerance. The most common symptoms are:

  • Belly pain.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Constipation.
  • Gas and bloating.
  • Nausea.
  • Headaches.
  • Skin rashes or flushing.
  • Inflammation.

Common food sensitivities or intolerances

Some of the most common food triggers for sensitivity or intolerance include:

  • Dairy (lactose) - lactose is the milk sugar found in mammals such as cows and goats. The majority of the world’s population is lactose intolerant due to a genetic decrease in internal lactase production, the enzyme required to digest lactose.
  • Wheat (gluten) - gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Though a true food allergy to wheat does occur, an intolerance to gluten is more common.
  • Histamine – this is a chemical naturally present in some foods like cheese.
  • FODMAPs – these are types of carbohydrates that are fermented by gut bacteria and may lead to gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other digestive discomfort in susceptible individuals.

Less common intolerances include eggs, soy, corn, and citrus.

Try an elimination diet to ease symptoms

An elimination diet is considered the gold standard for identifying food triggers associated with food sensitivities and intolerances. A routine elimination includes a 4-week elimination period, and once symptoms improve, a slow and gradual reintroduction phase follows. Make sure to track symptoms throughout the whole process to help you discover patterns.

A reintroduction phase (lasting 6-7 days) may look like this:

Step 1: Day 1 (Week 1) often includes a very small amount such as one tablespoon.

Step 2: If no symptoms occur, double the serving on Day 2.

Step 3: If again no symptoms occur, try ¼ cup on Day 3.

Step 4: Stop reintroduction and wait 3 days to monitor for delayed reactions.

If at any point in steps 1-4 the child experiences symptoms, consider that food a trigger, temporarily. If you have eliminated multiple foods, proceed with reintroducing another food, in the same manner, the following week. You can always revisit previously identified sensitivity “trigger” foods to make sure avoiding that food is still necessary.

When to see the doctor

If you are concerned about chronic symptoms your child is experiencing that are not responsive to an elimination diet, schedule a visit with your pediatrician to discuss an appropriate plan of care. Digestive or skin symptoms lasting longer than two weeks likely warrant a doctor’s appointment. Seek emergency medical care if your child is showing signs of breathing difficulty, hives, dizziness, facial swelling, or other signs of anaphylaxis.

While food sensitivity is not life-threatening like a food allergy, the symptoms may feel just as debilitating or difficult to manage. Consider eliminating the most common food triggers in children to see if symptoms improve or resolve. Visit your doctor for chronic symptoms or concerns of a food allergy.

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