If you’re the parent of children without food allergies, I urge you to keep reading! This post will give you a bit of insight into the lives of families with food allergies. I also encourage you to read my follow-up post: Four Things Families With Food Allergies Want You to Know
4 Tips to Navigate School Waters With a Food-Allergic Child
When your child can eat anything, you don’t give it much thought. I know this because for two years, that was my life.
I made baked goods to bring to play dates, I dropped my son off at Sunday School without a concern for what the snack might be, I threw birthday parties and served any food I wanted. Unless another parent told me that their child had an allergy, I never thought about it because I never had to think about it.
Then our second son was born and several months into his life, I was given a crash course in ‘Life with a Food-Allergic Child‘. Suddenly every place we went held hidden dangers.
Every item at the store had to be carefully screened. Every time I dropped him off somewhere I worried that he would eat something he wasn’t supposed to eat.
Thankfully, Samuel’s allergies are not severe. Even so, we try to be as careful as we can to avoid any allergic reactions.
When he started PreK this year I discovered that school is a whole new world to maneuver when it comes to dealing with food allergies. Sending a child off to school all day is nerve-wracking enough without the added worry of him having an allergic reaction while there.
We’re only a few weeks into the school year, but this is what I’ve learned so far when it comes to navigating these new waters. Of course the questions you ask and the precautions you take will depend in large part on the severity of your child’s allergies, but this can at least be a jumping off point.
1. Find out school policies before school starts.
We filled out Samuel’s health forms over the summer, but when I brought in the EpiPen on the first day of school, I suddenly discovered I should have done my homework ahead of time.
It wasn’t a surprise that they needed a copy of the prescription, but I didn’t even think to bring in a bottle of Benadryl and when they asked if I had one, they also informed me that I needed a prescription for that too.
It took a bit of scrambling to get everything in order and I realized that things would have gone more smoothly if I had asked questions ahead of time.
Questions to ask include:
- Do you have allergy-free classrooms?
- Do you need a prescription for all medications (including over-the-counter)?
- Where are medications kept (office, nurse’s office, classroom)?
- Do you need more than one EpiPen so that they can be kept in multiple locations?
- What are the lunchroom policies? Are there allergy-free tables? Do children wash their hands after lunch?
2. Learn the classroom policies.
Questions to ask include:
- Do you have snack time in your room? Do children wash their hands afterwards?
- How are special days (birthdays, holidays, etc) handled? Do parents bring in snacks? If so, are there any restrictions on those snacks?
- If special snacks are allowed, do you have a list of the dates they will occur so I can send in a safe treat for my child?
Just because you did the first two tips doesn’t mean you’re done!
Keep the lines of communication open with your child’s teacher, other school staff, and fellow parents throughout the year.
If you’re unsure about something, ask.
If you see something that needs to change, tell the appropriate person.
It can be easy to feel like ‘that mom’ and not want to be a bother, but the fact is that you are your child’s number one advocate. Most parents of children with food allergies are well-trained in looking for potential dangers while people who don’t have experience with food allergies will not be.
It is our job to communicate and educate when appropriate.
4. Teach your child to be his own advocate.
Samuel has known from a very young age that he is allergic to nuts and dairy. If you put a piece of cheese in front of him, he’ll tell you he can’t eat it.
He has had the added benefit of a protective older brother who for the past four years has been with him in most situations (the church nursery, a babysitter’s house, etc). Eli is quick to say what Samuel can and can’t eat and he’s also quick to ask about a food that he’s unsure of.
Now that Samuel is in a classroom by himself, I’m glad we’ve taught him about his allergies, but I wish we had done a better job of teaching him to speak up for himself instead of relying on his brother. Another thing he needs to learn is that dairy has many names, including the lesser known casein and whey.
Since he’s started school, he and I have discussed that he should always ask about foods he’s unsure of and in any case of uncertainty, he should err on the side of caution. It’s not easy to tell your four-year-old to give up the cookie that’s sitting in front of him, but it’s certainly better than the potential alternative.
Teaching him to self-advocate will be an ongoing process, but it is probably the most important of all these tips.