The incidence of peanut allergies could drop by 77% if products containing the nutrient were part of the diet of babies four to six months old, scientists said.
Researchers in the UK have said they have identified a “clear window of opportunity” in which introducing an allergen into the diet of a baby between the ages of four and six months significantly reduces the risk of contracting the disease.
They added that waiting until children are one year old to introduce the peanut products would only result in a 33% reduction in cases.
The NHS currently recommends the introduction of solid foods for babies from around six months of age when they are considered to be developmentally mature.
Based on their findings, recently published in the Journal of Allergy And Clinical Immunology, scientists are urging the government to review the latest evidence.
Professor Graham Roberts of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Southampton Biomedical Research Center and the University of Southampton said the last government review was in 2018 and since then numerous studies have been shown showing that the introduction of Food from three to four months of age “is very successful in reducing the likelihood of developing peanut allergies and other food allergies.”
He added: “However, we would suggest that this is the time for the government to reconsider this evidence and I suspect they will change the recommendations on introducing peanuts.”
Professor Roberts said there were challenges to overcome as “conscious avoidance of peanuts over many decades has understandably led to parental anxiety about early introduction”.
He said, “This latest evidence demonstrates that applying simple, inexpensive, and safe interventions to the entire population could be an effective preventive public health strategy that would bring major benefits to future generations.”
Peanut allergy affects around 2% (1 in 50) of children in the UK and has been increasing in recent decades, according to Allergy UK.
Most peanut allergies have already developed by the time a child turns one year old.
It’s more common in children with severe eczema and egg allergy, the researchers said, and children of nonwhite ethnicity are also more likely to be affected.
As part of the study, researchers examined data from the Inquiring About Tolerance (EAT) and Learning Early About Peanut Allergy (LEAP) studies.
The Leap study enrolled 640 babies considered at high risk of developing peanut allergy and examined the early introduction of peanut products.
The Eat Project recruited and followed over 1,300 three-month-old babies in England and Wales over a number of years and studied the early introduction of six allergenic foods: milk, peanuts, sesame, fish, egg and wheat.
They also looked at data from the peanut allergy sensitization study.
The researchers said their results showed that it was best to introduce peanut products to babies between the ages of four and six months.
For babies with eczema, the researchers recommend introducing the products, smooth peanut butter or other appropriate peanut snacks, from four months of age.
Whole or broken peanuts should not be given to babies, the team said.
They said the baby should also be developmentally ready to start complementary feeding.
The team also advises mothers to breastfeed for at least the first six months of their child’s life and to include peanuts in their diet from four to six months.
Babies who develop severe allergic reactions, such as trouble breathing, should see a doctor right away, the scientists said.
Professor Gideon Lack of King’s College London and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said: “The benefits of introducing peanut products into babies’ diets diminish as they get older.
“This reflects the experience in Israel, a culture where peanut products are commonly introduced early in infant diets and peanut allergies are rare.
“There is a narrow window of opportunity to prevent the development of an allergy.
“Introducing peanut products at four to six months of age could significantly reduce the number of children who develop peanut allergy.”
Commenting on the study, Mary Fewtrell, Professor of Pediatric Nutrition at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health, said: “This may be a reasonable approach, but infant feeding recommendations are not made considering only one endpoint such as food allergy.
“The risks and benefits of each proposed set of outcomes need to be considered, and that’s what the expert groups will do when deciding whether to amend the existing recommendations.”
She added, “As the authors point out, education here will be important for both healthcare professionals and parents so that any change in advice is effective and safe.”