For Jennifer Buteau, shopping for the new school year is a bit more complicated than it is for most parents. Along with the notebooks, pens and pencils, Buteau is stocking up on a supply of Benadryl and EpiPens just in case her 8-year-old son accidentally comes in contact with an errant peanut that will leave him covered with hives and gasping for breath.
“It’s really hard for people to understand,” says the 40-year-old substitute teacher and mother of two from Sharon, Mass. “Just touching a bit of peanut can cause such a serious reaction. It’s nerve-wracking.”
Whether they’re prepping a kindergartner for her first day or getting an older child ready to start a new school, parents of kids with severe allergies have much more to worry about than the usual first-day jitters: Will school personnel take their child’s allergy seriously? Will their child turn down that unapproved cookie offered by a friend at snack time? Will whoever’s in charge know how to use the EpiPen in the event of a reaction?
For parents like Buteau, it all comes down to the right prep work – talking to teachers and the school nurse in advance, supplying everyone with the right medications, and making sure that every morsel her son will consume was prepared by her own hands.
This year Buteau is buying a special EpiPen pack for her son to carry around with him. “Every year has been a little different,” Buteau says. “This year the school is shifting responsibility for EpiPens from the teachers to the children. So I’ve got him a waist-pack kind of thing and a medic-alert bracelet.”
Buteau considers herself lucky among parents with allergic kids. Her school has its own nurse and because the principal also suffers from food allergies, she had no problem designating Buteau’s son’s classroom as a no-nut zone.
The good news for parents like Buteau is that kids with allergies have finally come up on the nation’s radar, says Dr. Maria Garcia-Lloret, a pediatric allergist and director of the pediatric food allergy clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Fifteen years ago people were not paying attention,” Garcia-Lloret adds. “It’s now commonly accepted that between 6 and 8 percent of kids in school have a food allergy. That’s a lot – it means in a school with 1,000 students, there will be 60 to 80 with food allergies.”
Which makes it a lot easier for parents who need to bring their kids’ allergies to the school’s attention, says Garcia-Lloret.
Susan Weissman, whose 9-year-old son Eden will be starting a new school in the fall, suggests parents make sure they brief all personnel – from teachers to coaches – about their child’s allergies.
“Remember to be polite,” says Weissman, a New York City mom who has written a memoir titled “Feeding Eden: The Trials and Triumphs of a Food Allergy Family.”
“Listen and be a role model for your child,” Weissman says. “Don’t just talk. Make sure you ask the teacher what is the best way to communicate from here on in when specific issues come up: Should it be email? By phone?”
Weissman’s son is allergic to a host of foods, including peanuts, milk and eggs. The food service at Eden’s old school had a no-nut policy. And with coaching from mom, Eden learned which foods were safe to eat – and which ones to skip.
“He managed beautifully,” Weissman says. “Except for the time when he got milk spilled on him in the cafeteria. He reacted but it wasn’t a terrible reaction.”
At Eden’s new school, kids will bring their lunches from home. Weissman already has asked the other parents to pack lunches that don’t contain peanuts. “I’m hopeful,” she says. “And, of course I’m a little nervous. You never want to be that parent. The one asking everyone to work around their kid. I only ask when I feel I must.”
Peanuts seem to be the one food that all food allergy parents want removed from the school grounds. Even when kids are allergic to many other foods, peanuts are the ones parents seem to be most worried about, often asking for the nuts to be banned from the school, or at least the classroom.
Garcia-Lloret, a pediatric allergist, advises parents to be more moderate in the demands they make of the school.
“If a parent comes to me and says she wants the school to be peanut-free, I say no,” she says. Fight instead for school personnel to be trained to recognize the signs of an allergic reaction, to have Benadryl available and to use an EpiPen, she says, adding that there is no evidence that banning peanuts will prevent reactions.
Beyond that, consider the fact that peanuts aren’t the only issue, Garcia-Lloret says.
“You can have a peanut-free classroom, but then what about the kid who is allergic to cashews or the kid with a deadly allergy to milk?” she asks. “And what about the child who is allergic to cat dander? Cat dander sticks to your clothes and can kick off allergic symptoms and even wheezing. Are we going to ban everyone from school who has a cat?”
Ultimately, demanding too much can lead to a backlash, Garcia-Lloret says. “Many times these extreme measures generate strong opposition,” she adds. “Even among the kids, you’ll hear someone saying, ‘Your mom made our classroom peanut-free.’ Resentment starts building up and sometimes you end up with a bullying problem.”
The best approach, says Garcia-Lloret, is to focus on educating your own kid. “That’s the safest approach,” she says. “But I tell you, those kids know more about how to avoid peanut exposure than you do.”
That’s what’s worked for Theresa Alster and her daughter Julia, 14.
Julia had a severe reaction to red food dye when she was 8. “It looked like she was having a seizure,” says Alster, a writer from Campbell, Calif. “It was very unpleasant and made her very nervous.”
That nervousness pushed Julia to do a lot of the groundwork herself. “She just trains everybody,” Alster says. “She’s a natural communicator. She let the other kids know, and they told their parents. If someone sends cupcakes to school with pink frosting, the parents send something different for Julia.”
Julia checks all the labels on what she eats and shies away from anything that might have red dye in it. So, for us, Alster says, “It’s not that big of a deal.”