At 9 months old, my son was spending his first morning at day care in the United States. It was a practice day to prepare us for my return to work. In this unfamiliar environment, he would not take a bottle from his new caregivers. So, when I arrived to pick him up at mid-day, I also tried feeding him some infant formula. Prior to this, he had formula maybe 2-3 times since birth, and only in very small quantities.
When I tried feeding him, he finally got a few drops from the bottle. Almost immediately, his hands and face began developing red, itchy hives. I had no idea what was happening. I packed him into his car seat, grabbed his older brother from the preschool room across the hall, and raced to our pediatrician’s office.
As we talked, our pediatrician recommended a blood test for food allergies. I was taken aback. Our son had broken out in hives before, but his older brother also had eczema and sensitive skin. An infrequent rash or hives generally did not startle us too much. What was this all about?
Hours later when I talked with my mother, she reminded me how my son had hives one time after I spilled milk on his skin. Maybe it was a milk allergy? I called the doctor, and the test results indeed indicated a milk allergy, along with some positive results for other common allergens. So began our new journey—raising a child with multiple food allergies – and in August 2012, this journey included our family’s move to Switzerland.
Cow’s milk, one of my son’s allergens
Managing Food Allergies in Switzerland
Our son will be 2 years old soon, and I have learned so much since that first blood test for food allergies. Thankfully, he has never had a reaction as severe as the first one. Plus, our list of unsafe foods has become shorter—now we only avoid milk, eggs and almonds.
As you may know, the statistics are both encouraging and scary. In general, data has shown an increase in food allergies, in both developed and developing countries. For example, the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that hospital admissions throughout Europe for severe allergic reactions in children, such as anaphylaxis, increased approximately 700 percent in the last 10 years. Yet, children have a chance of outgrowing their allergies, which gives me hope.
Before experiencing life with food allergies firsthand, I learned about them through friends, colleagues and the media, etc. Yet, I really had no idea what my son’s diagnosis could mean for our family. Here are a few ways our lives have changed:
- Carrying EpiPens: We never leave the house without my son’s two EpiPens (adrenaline auto-injectors) and an antihistamine (e.g., Benadryl).
- Avoiding restaurants: We rarely eat out at restaurants because of the difficulty in finding allergy-friendly menu items.
- Reading labels: Grocery shopping takes longer because I have to carefully read labels in search of allergens or potential traces of them.
- Monitoring social gatherings: At other people’s homes, I must closely watch my son and make others aware of his allergies, so he doesn’t accidently eat unsafe food (this just happened last month; luckily, everything was fine.)
- Washing hands: We always wash our hands, just in case. I wash my hands immediately after pouring a glass of milk for my oldest son, for example.
Coping with the Daily Challenges
Raising a son with food allergies can be challenging and stressful, but I try to stay positive and focus on all the wonderful food my son can safely eat. Since arriving in Switzerland, I have enjoyed exploring new ways of cooking and trying different ingredients. While it can be a struggle avoiding our son’s allergens, I have found so many great recipes (and developed a few of my own), and my search continues.
To help cope with my son’s food allergies, in addition to consulting with allergists and obtaining information from various organizations, I share our experiences through my blog, Dairy-Free Switzerland, which I started in May 2012. I use it to keep track of recipes, get feedback and advice from others living with food allergies, and stay up-to-date on the latest research. My hope is that others with food allergies, either living here or visiting Switzerland, can benefit from our experiences raising a food-allergic child in the land of chocolate and cheese.
While food allergies have presented unforeseen challenges for my son and our family, we are doing just fine. It can be hard at times, as our daily activities can require a little more preparation, but it is all worth it to keep him safe. For now, we cannot feed him delicious milk chocolate or cheese fondue, but in the coming years I hope he can enjoy these wonderful Swiss treats too—just like everyone else.
By Heddi Nieuwsma Illustration by Ivy Hieber-Kwok Photos by Heddi Nieuwsma
Heddi is a recent arrival to French-speaking Switzerland, along with her husband and two lively boys. She has been recognized by Circle of Moms as a Top 25 Food Allergy Moms – 2012. To read more about her adventures raising a food-allergic child in the land of chocolate and cheese, check out her blog: Dairy-Free Switzerland.