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Why Candy Should Not be a Reward - An Allergy Mom Takes a Stand

By Guest Contributor, Helen Bertelli

When I looked down at my daughter's three-month-old face - that face I had looked into so many times as I fed her, played with her and comforted her - it suddenly looked completely different.

I didn't recognize her. Her tiny lips were swelling, her cheeks puffing, her whole face was distorting. Panicking, I undid her onesie. Large, scalding red circles were forming on her tiny chin, her neck, and esophagus, following the path the milk had taken to her stomach.

I was visiting my parents in England. Sophia lay on my lap as I sat on their couch having just finished feeding her her second ever bottle of formula. The first had been fed to her shortly after birth in the NICU.

My father grabbed her up and held her over the sink; the milk came shooting out of her mouth. Soon after, thankfully, the swelling subsided. By the time we got to the emergency room, she seemed relatively back to normal.

When I returned to the United States, I met with her pediatrician. His words are etched in my memory:

"This was not anaphylaxis. I don't know what you think you saw but anaphylaxis is not possible in a three-month-old. The immune systems of babies that young aren't developed enough to mount such a reaction; in my entire career, I have never seen it."

Two weeks later we had an allergy test. A two-hour appointment turned into an eight-hour one because the nurses would not let me leave the building in case of a secondary reaction; my baby's entire back had swelled from one tiny prick of cow's milk. Her immune reaction was among the worst and most serious they had seen. 

After her initial exposure in the NICU, her tiny immune system had inexplicably identified cow's milk as the enemy. At her second exposure - defying all odds - it had mounted a spectacular and potentially deadly defense.

Joining the Mad Hatter's Tea Party

Before my daughter's reaction, I was the mom who rewarded with candy. Chocolate, especially, was my go-to. My kids had free reign...cookies, cakes, popcorn, pizza, the lot. Today it makes me cringe to think of how little regard I paid to what my kids ate.

But after the reaction, everything changed. The experience was our induction into what I sometimes call the "Mad Hatter's Tea Party;" a new and weird reality that so many families face today, where seemingly innocuous foods harm tiny bodies. Sometimes even turning deadly.

Once you are at this crazy party, there's no leaving.

At first, it feels surreal. Everything changes. Food is so central to life, touching virtually everything we do, that danger is everywhere you look. Life has to change and change dramatically because you cannot risk another exposure. 

As Sophia began crawling, her sister's Halloween and Easter candy (stashed high in cabinets) gave me nightmares; what if a Hershey Kiss fell? My membership in a local moms' club playgroup was short-lived; the copious amounts of Goldfish cracker dust ground into carpet and on little fingers gave me heart palpitations.

We stopped buying milk for fear of cross-contamination. I read, researched, grilled grocery store clerks and called food manufacturers. I learned all sorts of things, like the fact that even some brands of soymilk yogurt contain cultures that are grown in cow's milk. We purchased Epipens. All sitters, friends, and relatives had to be trained on how to use them. I watched the blood drain from many a babysitter's young face as I explained the life-threatening implications of Sophia's allergy.

I could go on, but if you are an allergy mom, you already understand; you understood the moment you read the title.

Swimming Against the Tide

As my kids grew, it because obvious that Sophia's older sister was reacting to certain foods as well (in a long story for another day, she was hospitalized several times before we ended up removing all grains, sugar and more from our diet, after which she recovered). These and other experiences have convinced me that something's up. Something is seriously amiss with our foods or our bodies or both.

The battle that allergy parents fight every day to keep their kids safe is just that - a battle. It is one that our family continues to fight ten years after Sophia's first reaction. 

As my kids grew it seemed that not a week went by without temptation: a party at school where kids ate cupcakes the size of their heads, science class experiments involving jellybeans, M&Ms, marshmallows or [fill in the blank because we've had 'em all]. Time and again my kids have watched from the sidelines because of their allergies. 

It has been:

  • Tough: how difficult must it be for kids to say no to giant cupcakes and other treats?
  • Lonely: dinner invitations are few and far between.
  • Time-consuming: try making everything you eat, absolutely everything, from scratch. For about a two-year stretch this was my life before I went back to work full-time and hired a wonderful person to help.
  • Expensive: see above! Clean eating is not cheap.

The above challenges have been tough enough for two grownups to overcome. But as my kids approach their teens - when independence is asserted, and money and decision-making skills are lacking - I worry they may not continue the fight.

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Somewhere along the way, what is normal has become skewed. Today, cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pizza for dinner is considered a normal day's nutrition. Candy is routinely used as a reward. Sugar Everything. 

But our bodies are screaming that this is not normal; rising instances of autoimmune disease, behavioral issues, mental illness, cancer, and so on, all suggest we should be asking serious questions.

Having lived through what we have experienced, I am convinced that some of us, my family included, are canaries in the coal mine. Perhaps because of genetics, we react more dramatically than others to the problems in our food supply. 

But for every person with dramatic or anaphylactic reactions, there are dozens - many of them kids - living with chronic conditions. These conditions may not upend lives (at least not yet), but they are often serious enough to cause pain and problems that prevent kids from living their best lives.

In this way sometimes I feel grateful. Grateful that our health issues were serious enough to force change. If they had not been so serious, we might still be struggling.

Life with Allergies

As the years have gone by, what felt so strange at first has become a way of life for us. We visit the Farmer's Market most Saturdays, eat home-cooked food, buy organic whenever we can, and I am proud of our kiddos and the choices they regularly make to keep themselves healthy.

But there are some times of the year that are more difficult than others. Celebrations like birthdays are always hard. Holidays where candy is commonplace are particularly difficult. As an allergy mom, I'm grateful for:

  • Friends and family who understand. Those who know not to offer my kids foods they cannot have, and don't ask questions like "are you sure she can't have this?"
  • Chefs who have been blazing the trail for those of us with allergies. In particular, the blogs, books, and resources by Danielle Walker and Dr. Sarah Ballantyne.
  • Companies that provide wonderful ways to reward kids without the use of candy. The Kenson Kids I Can Do It! reward chart adorned our fridge for years! 

Before our journey into Mad Hatterville, I barely gave a thought to the issue of nutrition. I never considered myself a good cook and was not at all talented in the kitchen. Thus - I often tell others - if we can do it, anyone can.

What happened to our family forever changed the way that I look at food; it changed us all, and for the better. That's why, whenever I can, I tell my story in hopes that it might help others.

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