Thinking about heading back to school can be stressful for many families, but for parents with food-allergic children, it can be a particularly trying time. When a food-allergic child comes into contact with the wrong snack food, sandwich spread or birthday treat, the consequences can be life-threatening.
More children than ever before have severe food allergies. In fact, the number of children suffering from food allergies in the U.S. is nearing 6 million, or 1 in 13. That means that about two children in every U.S. classroom have a food allergy. That fact should be cause for concern for both parents and school administrators.
If you’re a parent of a food-allergic child, do not despair. You’re not alone. Although many schools have enlisted food bans to try to keep food-allergic children safe, relying on this to protect your child is not a fail-safe. Whether you’re sending your child off to school for the first time, sending him or her to a new school or simply sending them back to school after a summer under your watchful eye, there are a few tactics you should personally enlist to help manage your child’s environment, minimize the risk of exposure and ensure your child is cared for swiftly and properly in the event of accidental exposure to a dangerous food allergen.
Meet with school staff members early. Don’t wait until the school year has started. Schedule meetings with principals, teachers, nurses and cafeteria staff before the school year begins. These meetings ensure that everyone involved is informed and prepared, and you’ll gain insight into how your child’s school manages food allergies.
While you’re on-site meeting with staff, ask for a tour of the cafeteria and any other areas where food or drink may be served.
Create a written plan. Work with your allergist to develop an action plan that outlines all necessary information on your child’s allergy, including how to prevent accidental exposures and how to recognize and treat symptoms of an allergic reaction in your child. Be sure to equip your child’s teacher and the school nurse with this plan and ask for a copy to be placed in your child’s file so all staff have access if needed.
Post pictures. With many food-allergic students in classrooms these days, it’s easy to forget who can’t have which foods. You can combat this by taping pictures of your child labeled with information regarding their specific allergies to the classroom wall. This will alert anyone who comes into the room that there’s a child with a food allergy in the room, and they will visually be able to identify which one without having to ask the students or the teacher. You can also post one on your child’s desk, which may serve as an important secondary reminder during snack times or classroom celebrations.
Odds are your child is not the only child in the classroom with a food allergy, so ensuring that any supervisory adult is able to connect your child’s face with his or her allergy in the event of an unplanned snack or an emergency is crucial.
Make safe snacks. Snacks are inevitable in a classroom situation. Ensuring that your child always has access to safe snacks is an important part of feeling confident in sending your child to school.
Many classrooms have banned edible birthday treats due to allergy concerns, but check with your child’s teacher to ensure you understand the potential for unsafe snacks and treats to be served.
When preparing your child’s safe snacks, label them as safe and leave some with your child’s teacher so your child won’t feel left out if the classroom has a special treat or celebration. Open and frequent communication with your child’s teacher is critical to keeping your child safe this and every school year. In addition to snacks, young children are often introduced to potential food allergens through activities and crafts — sensory tables may be filled with grain products like dried pasta, children may be encouraged to build something using empty milk cartons or egg crates or baking projects may contain an unsafe ingredient. Ask your child’s teacher to reach out to you directly if there’s ever a question about the safety of an activity or snack. Ensuring they have your cell phone number saved in their phone and feel comfortable sending you a quick text message could be imperative to avoiding a dangerous allergic reaction.
Educating children about their allergies is also an important part of keeping them safe when you can’t be with them. You will not always have control over the food your child encounters, so it is critical to help your child learn to identify safe and unsafe situations independently. Allergy alert bracelets can be a useful tool for helping the adults (who may not yet understand a child’s allergies) ensure that child’s safety.
Finally, a food-allergic child and/or a responsible adult should always have access to the child’s oral antihistamines and an epinephrine autoinjector in case of emergencies. Sending your food-allergic child to school doesn’t have to be scary. By taking necessary precautions and encouraging constant and open communication with the staff supporting your child, your child will have a safe and happy school year, and you will have peace of mind that your child’s needs are known and respected.
By Bruce J. Lanser, MD, is director of the Pediatric Food Allergy Program at National Jewish Health.
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How to Confidently Send Your Food-Allergic Child to School This Fall originally appeared on usnews.com