When is it Safe to Introduce Gluten to your Baby’s Diet?

When is it Safe to Introduce Gluten to your Baby’s Diet?As a nutritionally conscientious mother you put a lot of thought into your baby’s diet. By breastfeeding you’re giving your baby the best nutritional start in life that has benefits that will last for years to come. Now some research indicates that when and how you start potentially allergenic foods in your baby’s diet may play a role in developing allergies, intolerances and possibly diseases. To that end you may wonder when it’s safe to introduce gluten to your baby’s diet. We’re examining the research surrounding babies and gluten today.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. It is present in many types of breads, pasta, cereal pastries, crackers, cookies and much more. It also lurks in unexpected places like soups, candies, sauces and salad dressings. Other grains may be cross-contaminated with gluten during processing as well so trace amounts of gluten are found in many foods.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten allergies occur when someone develops an immune response to gluten. Usually gluten issues are categorized as a wheat allergy, celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.

Wheat allergies are much like being allergic to any other type of food. It can cause an immediate or delayed reaction upon consumption including anaphylaxis or difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting, hives or a rash, diarrhea, or congestion. Typically children with wheat allergies grow out of them by age 12.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune response to gluten that causes permanent and life-threatening damage to the intestines. Gluten inflames the gastrointestinal tract severely and must be completely eliminated from the diet to avoid harmful side-effects. In children celiac disease is marked by constipation or diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, nausea and vomiting. It can have serious repercussions for children including failure to thrive in infants, delayed puberty, stunted growth and being underweight, among other problems.

Gluten sensitivity causes uncomfortable side-effects from gluten but is not life-threatening. Usually the symptoms include bloating and gas, headaches and fatigue. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is diagnosed when a patient does not test positive for wheat allergies or celiac but develops these symptoms when eating gluten.

The Research on Gluten and Babies

Much like eggs and nuts, gluten is a highly debated food topic for babies. In recent years studies have concluded that earlier introduction of foods that pose a higher risk of allergies may prevent the onset of lifelong allergies to certain foods. This was initially the case with gluten as one highly regarded study showed that starting gluten between 4 and 6 months was the ideal window to familiarize a baby’s gut to the protein and reduce risk of celiac disease. This study also found that breastfeeding may help prevent the onset of a gluten allergy and celiac disease.

However, two studies published in 2014 contradicted the earlier research at every level. They both found that the timeframe of when it is safe to introduce gluten to your baby’s diet – prior to 6 months or after 12 months – did not affect the likelihood of high risk children developing celiac disease.  It showed that introducing gluten later may delay the onset of celiac disease but not prevent it altogether. Also, the latest research indicated that breastfeeding did not safeguard against developing a gluten allergy.

Conclusions about Gluten and Babies

Unfortunately the research is inconclusive regarding the safest time to introduce gluten in your baby’s diet. Therefore it’s important to discuss your baby’s individual risk factors with your pediatrician to develop a nutritional plan that is best for your baby. Also, if your baby is at high risk for gluten intolerance, especially celiac disease, be hyper-vigilant of adverse side-effects when introducing gluten. While breastfeeding may not deter gluten intolerance, it is still the best initial nutritional source and continued nutritional supplement for your baby.

Sources: Parents, Mind Body Green, Science of Mom and Healthline