5 lessons I’ve learned from managing my son’s food allergies

By Megan Hanlon

When I saw the hives, I started to sweat.

At 10 months old, I offered him a new twist on a familiar snack—slices of fresh banana, now slathered with peanut butter. While I washed bottles, he worked the sticky chunks into his mouth.

A few minutes later, I turned to ask how he was enjoying his new treat. That’s when I saw the hives.

Everywhere the peanut butter had touched—his fingers, the sides of his hands, his cheeks—had turned deep pink and sprouted dozens of angry bumps.

Is he allergic to peanuts? Nobody in the family is allergic to peanuts. Oh god, what do I do?

Feeling blindsided, I scrubbed off all traces of peanut butter with soap and water, then I watched and agonized—are the hives spreading? Are his lips swelling or normal? Does his breathing sound labored or am I imagining it? 

For a few hours I was the quintessential worried mother, pacing in front of her first-born, standing on the edge of terror. 

As the hives faded I slowly unclenched, not realizing this was the beginning of a lifelong battle. Within a couple of months we saw a pediatric allergist, who confirmed my baby’s peanut allergy, plus also allergies to tree nuts and sesame seeds. 

Our lives shifted both imperceptibly and monumentally.

My little boy is eight now, and together we’ve learned to manage his food allergies successfully. Although he has not suffered another reaction, there are no guarantees.

With his diagnosis, hyper-vigilance became our new normal. For the rest of the foreseeable future, my child and anybody with him must know exactly what’s in his food, or else he could suffer a life-threatening reaction and possibly die.  

It’s an overwhelming reality to live with. But along this journey, food allergies have taught us a few valuable lessons. 

Sometimes help hurts.

There will be times when the best thing for you hurts.

When he was 12 months old, a nurse pricked my son’s skin over and over to test common allergens—peanuts, wheat, milk, eggs, pollen, pet dander, and more. To him it must have felt like two dozen searing paper cuts across his tiny back. Then we waited 20 grueling minutes to see whether his body reacted. He sobbed while we held him chest-to-naked-chest and immobilized his flailing limbs. As welts blossomed, we couldn’t put our arms around him or we’d cross-contaminate the samples. I was helpless to help him—worse, I was complicit in his agony. 

Around age three, doctors retested. This time my husband restrained him in a vinyl chair while nurses drew blood from his thin arm. It was quicker than the skin test, but the entire hospital could hear his howls of fight, fear, and pain. Every parent within earshot felt our misery that day. 

Two years later, doctors tested again for allergies and immune issues. Through five vials of blood, I pinned him to my lap and held fast while he writhed, screamed, and shed hot, fat tears. I cried at his pain and my own. Even his younger sister bawled in sympathy. 

My sweet boy is too young to understand the importance of small suffering in the interest of bigger gains. But those days are coming. I hope he’ll fall back on these experiences to find strength and perseverance when he needs it in the not-so-distant future. 

Always be aware.

When first diagnosed, the only people who fed my son were family. Protecting him was relatively easy.

As he entered environments where others doled out snacks and oversaw lunches, we had detailed discussions with preschool teachers and ran reconnaissance at every birthday party. Knowing that someone could inadvertently injure my child with food felt like living under a constant bomb threat any time we left our house. One small mistake could lead to disaster.

But at home, where I thought I had things under control, I got complacent. I assumed if a food was allergen-free when I bought it, it would stay that way. I was wrong. When my son was three, his favorite sandwich crackers switched recipes to include peanut flour instead of only white flour, but I never noticed. It had been a safe food, one of the few things he’d consistently eat, so I threw it in my shopping cart without hesitation.

He had already eaten the crackers when I saw the peanut flour ingredient, and I could have collapsed under the weight of my guilt. We narrowly dodged disaster—the amount of peanut flour was so small, my son didn’t have any reaction. His allergist was unconcerned, but I learned an important lesson.

With allergies and with life, always be tuned in. Stay willing to change your assumptions about what you think you know, or there could be serious consequences. 

Continually adapt.

At each new phase of my son’s increasing independence—communal school lunchtime, drop-off parties, sleepovers—we have to consider potential threats and their solutions. I often feel like I’m trying to balance my son’s safety in one hand with the innocence of childhood in the other, while also riding a unicycle across a tightrope.  

It’s a moving target, but instead of standing still we keep moving too. In kindergarten he began wearing a bright orange allergy alert bracelet with pictures of his forbidden foods. We switched from athletic shorts to cargo shorts so he could keep an epinephrine injector in his pocket when he’s on his own. “Does that have anything I’m allergic to in it?” is now his well-rehearsed mantra.  

The best advice I can give to an allergy parent—and everyone else—is to take literally the adage “adapt or perish.” It could come true.

The hard truth: I can’t protect my child from everything.

At some point all parents realize it’s impossible to shelter their children from every potential threat. Although my husband and I are very careful—and teaching our son to be very careful—we may not be able to avoid exposure to his allergens. For my son, dangerous foods can be anywhere—including places we might not expect them.

For example, in 2018, a British teen died after eating unnoticeable sesame seeds that were baked into the bread of a sandwich at an airport—but not listed in the ingredients. More than once in 2020, a jokester smeared peanut butter on the handrails of New York City subway’s A Train. If my little boy had come into contact with either of these, he could have landed in the hospital or worse.

Unless I want to drive myself mad with worry, I’ve learned I have to let go. I trust we’re doing the best we can and know how to react in an emergency. I also put faith in how we’ve educated our son to avoid possible threats, and seek help if he needs it. That’s all we can ask of ourselves as humans, whether managing medical conditions or not. 

Give grace, because you don’t know another’s situation.

From the outside, we look like any normal family (if such a thing exists). On the inside, we’re fighting a daily battle to keep our oldest child safe. 

The biggest lesson I’ve learned through dealing with food allergies is that one never knows what goes on in any other family or person’s life. I try harder now to have empathy for others, because everyone is struggling with something.

Overall, what we have learned as a family is that with awareness, caution and a lot of fortitude, we can manage even what we can’t overcome.

Megan Hanlon is a work-at-home-mom and former journalist who grew up in Texas. She now resides in Ohio with her husband, two children, and a disobedient Boston terrier. Out of all the things she’s given up, she misses Reese’s Cups the most. Read more at http://sugar-pig.blogspot.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter at @sugarpigblog. 

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