Did I cause this? It's my fault, right? How to move past guilt with food allergies
Updated: Jan 26
I stumbled on this article a month ago and had a moment of sheer panic, guilt, and flashback to a specific incident in 2012 on this exact topic. The title alone felt like it had our family pegged as the subjects in the study:
'Babies Whose Pacifiers Were Cleaned With Antiseptics Were 4 Times More Likely To Develop Food Allergies by Age One'
In 2012, I took my 5-month old son to Panera for coffee with a friend who had also had a 5-month old. We were both on maternity leave; this was her 3rd daughter and our firstborn son. I vividly remember feeling self-conscious as I struggled to adjust his chest straps comfortably in his stroller. Hers was a well-worn stroller that had earned its scratches and seen many spills and spit-ups. She was a pro and I was a nervous newbie.
I've always been a hand-talker who needs a lot of space to tell stories. I'm also very clumsy on a good day so you can only imagine how I look as a sleep-deprived new mom. I counted standing upright as a win, but showers were a luxury reserved for a few times a week. Brushing my teeth happened twice daily but even that felt like a lot of work.
So when I successfully left the house with a packed bag full of a dozen items, drank a cup of coffee without reheating it three times and found time to connect with another mom who was also raising a 5-month-old, you better believe I was celebrating this HUGE win.
At one point at Panera I looked over and saw my son fling his pacifier out of his mouth. Oh look. He's clumsy like his mom...how sweet. Except it wasn't sweet at all. It was disgusting. I watched it land on the sticky concrete patio outside Panera and I cringed thinking about the germs attaching themselves to the pacifier.
On instinct I ripped open a fresh pack of sealed pacifier wipes* that I bought and had shoved into my new diaper backpack. I surprised myself at how prepared and proud I was to tackle this moment.
My friend crinkled her nose, raised her eyebrow and pointed to the package with a tilted look of confusion.
Her: What are those?
Me: Pacifier wipes (with a proud grin)
............ (long pause)
Her: Oh girl, let me tell you how this went for us. First kid, we boiled new pacifiers and scrubbed dirty ones with soap and water. Second kid, we rinsed it for maybe 5 seconds. Third kid, we now pick it up, look for anything gross, dust it off and pop that sucker back into her mouth.
Me: Silent. Disgusted. Confused.
............ (more awkward silence)
Her: She flips over to the next topic immediately and moved on.
Me: I'm still stunned and don't move on so quickly. (Clearly, because eight years later, it still obviously sticks with me!)
Was I a new mom following textbook parenting? Absolutely.
Was she trusting her wisdom after being an experienced mom? Absolutely.
Were we both right based on our circumstances? Absolutely.
Now here's the interesting part about that Reddit post above. According to the article, both of our first-borns SHOULD have developed food allergies according to the study since we both sanitized the pacifiers. But only our son did. Her daughters did not. The Reddit post stirred up emotions and inspired many contradicting personal stories that people shared.
Net, net? The full picture is still very fuzzy on why some kids get food allergies and others do not. It's a complex matrix that is still under discovery by hundreds of researchers. If it were straightforward, we would have more clarity towards curing allergies.
Research is ongoing and theories vary but there do seem to be a few factors that are unanimously supported. Genetics, environment, diet and lifestyle all seem to be contributing factors to the spike in food allergy cases.
Of course all of these factors play different roles and the dynamic landscape continues to raise more questions than answers. It is definitely not straightforward, even with such theories as the 'hygiene theory' which suggests that we've sterilized our environments so much that our immune system misfires and look at foods as threats. It's not that simple and there are other factors at play besides this one area.
Dr. Kari Nadeau is a leader from the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University. She co-authored the book, "The End of Food Allergy", and based on scientific research, she points out some interesting lifestyle actions we can consider adopting to prevent food allergies. She gets us closer to helping immune systems develop to properly identify the right threats for our system.
She says,"We have a wealth of evidence saying the “6 Ds” are helpful:
Make sure your vitamin D levels are good
If you can, keep a dog while your kids are small
Have good dirt around (to bring diversity into the gut's microbiome)
Avoid dry skin to keep the skin barrier intact
Avoid strong detergents that irritate the skin
Diversify the diet early
These are helpful insights to know and put the power back in our hands. Some of these actions will not help a child who has already been diagnosed but they are excellent practices overall to consider and share.
When we know better we can do better. Please don't beat yourself up if you think you caused your child's food allergies. Remember that the factors are far too complex and still being researched. As a problem-solver by nature, I know this can be especially frustrating to hear! We want clarity and confirmation. Tell us the bad news, but don't leave us hanging, right? Unfortunately that's not in our control yet.
I blamed myself for years and still struggle with it at times. But I learned to manage that energy and turn it towards healthier outlets. In the end, guilt only weighs you down and does not serve as a productive use of energy. It's OK to move through and process the heavy emotions, but don't stay there. You'll attract more toxicity and only create harm in your mental, physical and spiritual well being.
Let's be real. Pretend you had 100% confirmation that the study mentioned in the Reddit post was true and provided the exact reason your kid has food allergies. What does that solve? Is it useful information today? Is it helpful as you move forward in your life? Does it change your circumstances now or tomorrow?
No. It doesn't.
Your energy is limited and you can either drain it, preserve it, or multiply it. All we can do is protect our precious energy and ask "is this useful?" to get the answers we're looking for. Will it change the outcome or help us move forward? Is it serving us well to dwell on the past? How does that move us forward? Are we giving away our limited energy to the past instead of focusing on the possibilities for tomorrow?
Here are some tips as you may be processing your own heavy emotions:
Guilt stays with us until we work through it. It won't go away. It just gets uglier and starts to drag us down and find new negative emotion buddies to build a mini army inside of us. Deal with it head on instead of shoving it aside or burying the emotions. Accept that it's a part of the journey and that you need to move through it. But don't stay there for too long.
Staying trapped in the past will drain your energy. Learn to let go and accept what you cannot change. Let go of what drains you and preserve your own limited energy.
Protect your energy fiercely. Preserve it and use it for good.
Remember to surround yourself with people, topics and possibilities that can preserve and even multiply your energy. Working out also helps multiply your energy and releases tension and trapped feelings.
Trap negative thoughts. Catch yourself in a moment and ask "is this useful"? It may force your amygdala to chill out and bring back some reasoning from your pre-frontal cortex.
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*(Regarding pacifier wipes, these are a waste of money! Today, I can confidently share as an experienced mom of three kids, pacifier wipes should be in the same category as wipe warmers for a baby's butt. This is the equivalent of a towel warmer in your bathroom. Do you have one? We sure don't. Sorry to offend if you do but I call that it's marketing gone wild. So not necessary!)