When Gina Livingston and her family dine out in an unfamiliar restaurant, they start the meal by handing a small business card to their server. On the front it says that her 5-year-old son has life-threatening food allergies, including to peanuts. On the back it explains that their food needs to be prepared without any possibility of cross-contamination by those foods.
"It's our best bet to communicate to the staff, that this is really serious," says the 41-year-old Atlanta mother of two. Some restaurants have responded enthusiastically, sending a chef out to talk about what they can safely make for her son. Others not so much, which tells the Livingstons all they need to know about whether it's a safe place for their family to dine.
A restaurant server is just one among many types of people that you talk to about your child's peanut allergy. Teachers, camp counselors, babysitters, and many others in your child's world also need to be in the loop.
Inform Your Child's Caregivers
"We tell everybody," Livingston says. "People being aware of it is what keeps him the safest."
It's especially important to explain the allergy to any of your child's caregivers. "Anyone who will be watching your child, even for a short time, needs to know to prevent, recognize, and treat an allergic reaction," says Kathy Przywara, senior community director of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Some key people to tell that your child has an allergy are:
- Family members
- Day-care center staff
- School staff, including nurse, teachers, and food service workers
- After-school and extracurricular program staff
- Scout leaders
- Camp counselors
- Parents of your child's friends for play dates and sleepovers
Call the Airlines
Airplane rides can be worrisome for families of kids with life-threatening food allergies. A medical emergency at 30,000 feet brings a whole new level of danger, so it's important to be extra careful.
"Whenever we book a flight," Livingston says, "I call the airline and have it listed on this boarding document that he has these allergies."
She also requests that no nuts be served and informs the gate agents and flight attendants about the peanut allergy.
"We always ask to board early so we can go in and wipe down the seats to make sure his seating area is totally safe," Livingston says. "You can also ask that they make an announcement that there be no eating of nuts on the plane."
What to Tell Others About Your Child's Peanut Allergy
Just informing your contacts about your child's allergy isn't enough. They need information about how to keep your child safe.
Let them know things like:
- Foods your child can eat or should avoid.
- How to read a food label to check that it's OK to eat.
- How to prevent cross-contamination.
- Your anaphylaxis emergency action plan.
- Where your child's epinephrine auto-injector is and how to use it.
- Emergency contact numbers.
It's a good idea to create a sheet with this information and hand it out to your contacts. You can leave it with caregivers and organizations outside the home and post it on the fridge for sitters.
Make Sure Caregivers Can Follow Your Plans
Giving printed information to caregivers is one thing, but you also need to be sure they're comfortable following it.
"Meet with teachers, school nurses, administrators, and caregivers to make sure you are on the same page with emergency action plans and all of your child's needs," Przywara says. "Everyone who cares for a child with a life-threatening allergy should know what to do during an allergic reaction."
"There may be people, who, after reviewing your child's care plan, you don't feel comfortable leaving your child with," Przywara says.
It's also important to eliminate "gray areas" about decisions that caregivers need to make. "Have firm rules like your child can only eat the food that you have provided," Przywara says. "If it's a group, provide enough for the group so no other food should be served."
Heather Clarke, adjunct professor at Queens College CUNY and a parent advocate in New York City, doesn't let sitters bring allergens into the house because her 7-year-old son has several life-threatening food allergies, including to peanuts.
"This should be the one place they should feel safe," Clarke says. "If you don't feel safe in your own home, where can you feel safe?"
Bringing Alternative Snacks Can Make Your Child Safer
Sometimes, in addition to keeping others informed about your child's peanut allergy, you can take steps on your own to make sure the environment is safe.
"I typically send all of his foods on play dates," Livingston says. "I provided all of the food for preschool class parties, just so he can have one day where he isn't excluded. School is so hard if you get left out and play dates can be hard when you don't get something special. If you want your kid to be included, you are going to have to make it happen."
Danielle Lober, whose 9-year-old son is allergic to peanuts, brings peanut-free snacks wherever she goes. The Atlanta mother says she's offered them to families on the playground when she has seen a child eating a sandwich with peanut butter.
"I will say, 'My son has a peanut allergy, can you not eat that here?'" Lober says. She then offers an alternative treat. "I'm always the mom with all the snacks at the park."
Know That You Are Keeping Your Child Safe
"Many times as parents, we don't want to be a bother or feel like we are being pushy," Przywara says. "But making sure caregivers are trained to prevent, recognize, and treat an allergic reaction is nonnegotiable. Parents need to advocate for their child without feeling like they are being a burden."
"It's tough to have these conversations because people think you're being a helicopter parent," Clarke says. "But at the end of the day, this is your child's life. You are keeping your child safe."