Preparing For School When Your Child Has Life-Threatening Food Allergies
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
For any parent, the day your first-born spreads their wings and trundles off shyly towards those school doors can be emotionally taxing. Parental self-doubt and waves of preemptive separation anxiety can raise a series of relentless questions in a mum’s mind. Will they make friends? How will they cope? What if they struggle?
In our family, we are hitting this huge milestone with Eva, my eldest daughter, who is starting school in September. I can honestly say I’ve had moments of dread about this day for the last 3 and a half years, not just because I am feeling the aforementioned mum-overwhelm of this huge day, but because three and a half years ago my daughter was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies.
If you had asked me a couple of years ago, I would have said with certainty that Eva would be home-schooled. The thought of any other alternative brought me to my knees. How could a school setting possibly be able to manage her life-threatening, multiple allergies? With so many moving parts, hundreds of pupils, snacks, and meals at every turn, it seemed like an impossibly unsafe situation to put my daughter into every day.
She is so severely allergic to a multitude of foods that even touch can cause an allergic reaction so severe, it could result in a blue lighted ambulance trip to A&E. Schools are filled with the foods she is severely allergic to, and I won’t be there to keep her safe, to be constantly checking, asking questions, and most importantly, be there to spot the first signs of a reaction, saving precious seconds in administering first aid.
Have you ever watched the reaction of an allergy mum when she hears her child simply sneeze, cough, or rub their eye? Immediately we’re on high alert that this could be a life-threatening reaction and launch straight into a fight or flight response. It’s no wonder we’re exhausted! How will I know if her teacher will be able to respond in time and have those natural instincts we do as parents when they have a classroom of children to watch for, who need to have their individual needs met too?
Administering adrenaline to a person having an anaphylactic shock needs to be done immediately and any delay can lead to loss of life. That’s why it’s so essential to know the symptoms and take action immediately. You don’t have time to call for assistance or go to the nurse’s office, you need the adrenaline on hand, and it must be used straight away. That’s why medications should never be kept in a locked cupboard at the other end of the school, they should always be kept close to the child, in the classroom, in the dining room, in the playground. Wherever the allergy child is, that’s where the medication should be too.
Last September, I was preparing for Eva starting pre-school. It was the first time I was leaving her alone, and my mind was relentlessly conjuring up endless combinations of coincidences and butterfly effects that would/maybe/might/could put my daughter at risk. What happens when the teacher is off and a cover teacher comes in? What happens if they missed something on a label, what is someone hesitates too long?
I felt an enormous responsibility to make sure I had passed on all the right information to keep my daughter safe. Thankfully, the pre-school was nothing short of amazing, we talked through different scenarios and how planned together how they would be managed in each eventuality. We came up with solutions when any issues or questions cropped up and they always double-checked things they were unsure about. We, as parents, were always reassured and felt safe.
Having such a positive experience has given me the confidence to trust that other people can take good care of my child. With the right information, collaboration, and allergy care plan in place, it has been possible for my daughter to have a great experience this past year at pre-school. Choosing to take this carefully managed risk has meant she has been allowed to benefit from the same school experience that other parents might take for granted for their children.
Seeing her make friends and become more independent, are important skills that I couldn’t have taught her at home. I have watched in awe as she glides along these important and simultaneous learning curves, and it gives me the ultimate parental joy to see my daughter thrive in her environment. Especially as it once seemed so out of reach.
So here I am, on the school uniform shopping trip that I never thought would happen. Eva is so excited about starting school and I am so excited for her, excited that she will get to enjoy all the full, rich experience that school provides, all the things she will learn, the friends she will make, the experiences she will have. The level of fear I had around her allergies is no longer a crippling one that prevents us from living, and it certainly won’t hold Eva back!
I’m under no illusion that it will all be easy. In fact, the risk has never been greater to Eva, with the number of her allergens increasing, as well as growing in severity. But I’ve dealt with the things that were causing me fear, I’ve put processes in place, I’m reassured by the school staff, and they’ve had their training. Most importantly, we have a great open relationship and understand that this is something we will need to continue to work on together.
There are an overwhelming amount of things to think about and prepare before an allergy child’s first day of school, but everything is completely attainable with planning and support. To help you prepare for the coming weeks, here are my top tips and reminders to make this a successful transition!
1. Organise your child’s medical bag
Ensure your medical bag for school is up to date with your 2 autoinjectors, antihistamine and any other medication your child needs at school (we also have an inhaler). It is your responsibility to keep an eye on the expiry dates, so find a process that will remind you a few weeks before they are due to expire.
I use Med Pac bags to store Eva’s medication, it’s insulated to protect from extreme temperatures and clearly marked as containing medical supplies. It contains our emergency contact details, emergency action plans as well as medication. I also set reminders on my phone to remind me to check the medication to prompt me to re-order.
2. Work with the School to create your child’s Allergy Care Plan
As a parent, you know your child best. You know more about what needs to be done to keep your child safe than anyone else, and you need to pass that information on to the school. You can’t expect them to ‘just know’ what has probably taken you years of experience to learn, and this is most likely a new situation for them.
Even though they may have previously had children with allergies at the school, each child is different and a unique case. Make sure they fully understand everything, don’t assume they know!
3. Share Your Knowledge
You have spent years building up tips, tricks, and strategies to navigate this challenging path. Every article you read, Facebook post and recipe idea was hard-won, and filed away securely in your mind. Even the little mistakes you’ve made and the ways you’ve been caught out along the way are invaluable knowledge. Now it’s time to take that amazing information and share it with the people who will care for your child at school.
Teach them what you know so they can prevent reactions from happening and more importantly, manage an emergency should something happen.
4. Ask about the School’s Allergy Training
As part of your allergy care plan, you will discuss the process of how to respond to an allergic reaction, from mild to severe symptoms.
You want the staff to all be aware to be able to spot the signs of an allergic reaction so training is crucial and best if this training is repeated regularly. At Eva’s pre-school, the staff refreshed their EpiPen training every 3 months. With practice, in the case of a real emergency, it helps with confidence and acting quickly without hesitation, doubt and stress.
5. Use Signage & Badges
Signage is a useful reminder of your child’s needs and can be widely used for lunchboxes, classrooms, and canteen areas. Badges can be used for your child to make sure all adults are aware of the allergies present and bags/medicine should be clearly marked and accessible. For Eva, we use a key-ring on our medical bag which says ‘EpiPen Inside.’
6. Get an Allergy Bracelet
If your child has a reaction out of your care and is too young to communicate their allergies, an allergy bracelet means responders can quickly identify the anaphylactic reaction and not hesitate in their treatment. I love The ID Band Co but there are lots of options out there!
7. Prepare for School Activities
We don’t want our little one to miss out! Keep open communication with the teacher about class activities so that you can provide alternative ingredients if needed. There are so many children’s activities (including baking, crafts and games!) that involve food, it’s so important that you are given advance warning so you can pre-check everything and ensure your child can join in.
8. Normalise Food Allergies
Children might ask questions, as children do. Why do you have a different plate of food? Why are you sitting on another table? Encourage your child to be open and upfront and keep great communication with them to nip any problems in the bud. Talk to the teacher about having a class learning session about allergies. There are great books to help! @youmeandfoodallergies and Matilda Has an Allergy by @Allergystars are ones I have purchased to give to our school.
9. Talk To The Other Parents
Do you have a WhatsApp group or Facebook group to communicate with each other? If not, why not start one up? If there is increased understanding and communication, it will make things so much easier when navigating birthday parties and playdates down the line. Take time to get to know the other parents and invest in these new friendships. Make an effort! Take up that invitation for coffee (even though you’re busy), make time to learn people’s names, and bringing some allergy-free treats to the school gate is never frowned upon either!
10. Emphasise Handwashing Hygiene and Cross Contamination
These are two areas where people are unaware of how allergens can be spread and can cause allergic reactions, and so ones to give extra emphasis to your meetings with the school. It’s not possible to completely seal an environment from allergens, so the importance of handwashing amongst teachers, staff and pupils is so important.
Handwashing before and after eating should be practised, as well as ensuring you talk about hygiene processes on the whole, as allergic reactions can happen from transferring the allergen unknowingly. For example, if someone has traces of nuts or another allergen on their hand and opens a door, that allergen has then been transferred to the door handle and could cause an allergic reaction to someone with an allergy who touches it.
I hope you've enjoyed my tips and you can start building your own plan. Share your thoughts or put your own tips in the comments below!