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You Suspect Your Child Has a Food Sensitivity—Now What?

If your child regularly experiences bothersome symptoms after eating, you may wonder if they have food sensitivity. For example, you may be concerned if they seem to get a tummy ache each time they eat a certain food. Or if they tend to become noticeably irritable when they have a specific snack.

You Suspect Your Child Has a Food Sensitivity—Now What?

While food allergies cause an immune response, the reactions caused by food sensitivities are more general, and often more subtle, says Camila Martin, MSRDN, CL, a pediatric clinical nutritionist at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin. Food sensitivities are particularly common in babies who may react to something in their formula or breast milk, says Martin. Learn more about food sensitivity, how it's diagnosed, and treatment options.

What is a Food Sensitivity?

A food sensitivity is when a person routinely has an adverse (but not allergic) physical reaction to eating a particular food. "Food sensitivities are not dangerous, but do cause discomfort," says Amy Reed, MS, RD, CSP, LD, a pediatric dietitian at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

There's not an exact definition of food intolerance or sensitivity, explains Martin. Instead, the terms are more a of catch-all for gut-related symptoms that occur when a certain food or additive is eaten. A food intolerance is a type of food sensitivity in which the body has difficulty digesting specific compounds, such as dairy or gluten.

Food Intolerance vs. Food Sensitivity

"The terms food intolerance and food sensitivity are sometimes used interchangeably, but a food intolerance usually involves a specific issue with digestion that can be tested for, such as lactose or fructose intolerance," says Martin.

Food sensitivities include food reactions that don't have specific known causes or ways to test for or treat them besides elimination diets.

The Difference Between a Food Allergy and a Food Sensitivity

People sometimes confuse food sensitivities or intolerances with food allergies. However, these conditions are quite different. A true allergy involves a reaction from the immune system, meaning the body perceives the food as a potential threat. This triggers an immune response in addition to any gut-related symptoms. Food allergies can range in severity, but in extreme cases can cause difficulty breathing or even be fatal, says Reed.

Food sensitivities also involve different types of antibodies than food allergies. "Antibodies that are associated with a sensitivity include immunoglobulin (IgG), immunoglobulin M (IgM), and immunoglobulin A (IgA)," says Reed. These can impact the gastrointestinal system rather than the whole body.

Signs Your Child Has a Food Sensitivity

Symptoms of food sensitivity in children can range in severity and presentation. "Some children may experience GI symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting. Other children may experience headaches, irritability, or fatigue," says Reed. Each child may experience food sensitivity differently, however, there are some commonalities to look for.1

In babies, signs of a food sensitivity can be if they are gassy, fussy, or colicky, says Martin. "They may have watery, foul-smelling, or mucus-streaked stool, issues with growth, and/or pain or arching after feeding." Blood in the stool can also be a sign of food sensitivity. They can't communicate their discomfort directly, so parents can look for signs of discomfort that occur during or after feedings.

"Older kids can verbalize discomfort, so it can be easier to pinpoint which foods are causing them distress," says Martin. Signs of a food sensitivity in toddlers and older children are similar to those in babies, but often include belly pain, problems with toilet training, and/or issues with bloating or diarrhea

How to Detect a Food Sensitivity

Typically, observation and an elimination diet are the primary ways to diagnose food sensitivities. "The first step in identifying a food sensitivity may be keeping a food diary and monitoring symptoms, followed by an elimination of suspected foods," says Reed.

Tracking what they eat and their symptoms can help you narrow in on what food your child may be reacting to. If the child is breastfeeding, the breastfeeding parent may need to do an elimination diet as well, says Martin.

If you suspect your child has a food sensitivity, check in with their pediatrician to make sure you get an accurate diagnosis. "There are many at-home tests that claim to detect food sensitivity, however, they can be expensive," says Reed. "Some prominent medical organizations such as the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology do not recommend this testing as there is no reputable scientific evidence to support their use."

Detecting a food sensitivity can take time as you track symptoms, foods eaten, and foods withheld while using an elimination diet. "If symptoms go away and then come back when the food is reintroduced, we'll determine there's a sensitivity to that food," explains Martin.

The Most Common Food Sensitivities For Kids

A wide range of foods and additives have been identified as potential food sensitivities in children, says Reed. The most common for babies and toddlers are dairy, soy, and eggs. "Children can be sensitive to these foods, but not allergic," explains Reed. "Gluten, for example, is associated with celiac disease, but a child can be gluten sensitive, but not have celiac disease."

When older babies and toddlers start eating more types of foods, a new food sensitivity can emerge. While just about anything your child ingests could trigger a food sensitivity, the most likely are the same foods that cause the most allergies, including milk products, soy, wheat, sesame, tree nut, fish, eggs, and peanuts. Additionally, note that a child can develop a food sensitivity at any point in childhood, even after having eaten the food previously without any adverse responses.

When to See a Doctor

If you suspect that your child has a food sensitivity, you'll want to take a look at their diet and seek out a professional diagnosis. "Start with their pediatrician,'" says Martin. "If the gut is involved, a pediatric gastroenterologist is the best expert for that, and it's also helpful to work with a registered pediatric dietician."

Some of the symptoms of food sensitivity can be similar to that of food allergies, so very important to have your child's symptoms evaluated by a healthcare provider to make sure you get the correct diagnosis—and aren't missing a potentially dangerous allergy.

On the flip side, you don't want to eliminate foods if there isn't a food sensitivity. Doing so could unnecessarily impact a child's nutrition. And you want to make sure you get to the root of the problem if an underlying issue, such as reflux, is responsible for your child's symptoms rather than a food sensitivity, explains Martin.

If you do need to remove foods from their diet, working with a registered pediatric nutritionist can help you find replacement foods that will ensure your child continues to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, says Martin.

Treatment for Food Sensitivity

Treatment for a food sensitivity will depend on what is causing a reaction in your child. "If a food is identified as causing symptoms, then it is generally recommended that a child remove or reduce intake of the food," says Reed.

A registered dietitian can help families make sure that there are no nutrient gaps following the removal of specific food or foods. "For example, if it is identified that a child is sensitive to milk products, then a dietitian can work with that family to find suitable ways to make sure the child is getting adequate calcium in the diet," says Reed.

After a period of time, under the supervision of your child's doctor or a nutritionist, you may decide to try to reintroduce the food to see if the sensitivity is still there, says Martin.

Can You Raise Children on a Special Diet?

Can a Food Sensitivity Ever Go Away?

While not every child will outgrow their food sensitivity, many do, says Martin. This is especially true for babies. "Typically, they will go away, and are often outgrown by 6 to 12 months," says Martin. Additionally, there are different thresholds of what a person can tolerate, and how much of the food they can comfortably consume can change over time, explains Martin.

However, it's also important to note that food sensitivities are unique to the person in question. Some people have a food sensitivity for the long term, while others outgrow them or develop them as teens or in adulthood. Your child's pediatrician or dietician is the best source to find out the likelihood of your child outgrowing their food sensitivity.

A Word From Verywell

If your child gets a tummy ache or other symptoms every time they eat a certain food, they may have a food sensitivity. Work with their healthcare provider and/or a registered dietician to make sure you get an accurate diagnosis and set up a safe meal plan for them.

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