As the mother of a dairy-allergic pre-teen, I am often asked: “How can anyone be allergic to milk?” From an early age, we’re taught that milk is good for you. It’s hard for people to fathom living without it, and then you explain that the milk allergy is not just to cow’s milk, but to a protein in every dairy product. Whether milk, cheese or whey or casein ingredients in a packaged food – it’s all dangerous and to be avoided.
Back when we registered our daughter for Junior Kindergarten, my husband and I heard all about anaphylaxis plans for peanuts and tree nuts. But school officials seemed to have a hard time grasping that milk could be just as deadly to a child allergic to dairy.
The school had a monthly Pizza Day, and the allergist had recommended that our dairy-allergic daughter not go to school on those days, as the risk of a reaction from the melted cheese (which smears so easily) was high. Since she missed many events, I asked the school to reconsider the importance of Pizza Day. To my great relief, the new principal was most understanding and promptly dropped the “day”.
Not all parents accepted this easily, but that’s OK. My primary job is to protect my child physically and psychologically; I want her formative years in academia to be positive. Several years into our journey with our dairy-allergic child and the school, the awareness-building continues. Along the way, we have learned much that’s worth sharing.
Keeping the Child Safe
1. First, meet the principal. It’s best to do this before school starts, and this step is essential for a first year at a school. You need to make sure that the principal understands the issues involved with dairy allergy. Make a good first impression; be reasonable, clear and encourage mutual respect. Know what you want to achieve.
But, let the principal and/or vice principal speak first and explain the allergy procedures the school has developed. This fosters a positive atmosphere, and then you’ll only have to make the case for a few important items.
2. Be aware of the minefields. Direct dairy sources at school include: milk programs, pizza parties, chocolate, goldfish crackers, cheese strings, yogurt and bread. Cross-contamination or contact reactions to watch for with dairy-allergic students can result from old Playdough, toys, faucets and door knobs. In the younger grades, children still place fingers in their mouths or noses and accidental ingestion this way can cause reactions.
3. Focus on reducing the risk. Some schools will make a specific classroom “allergy-friendly” and restrict dairy products to protect an allergic child. But milk in the form of whey, casein or modified milk ingredients is in so many foods that completely restricting it in a school would: not be practical, cause an uproar, and be impossible to police.
Still, according to several anaphylaxis laws and policies in the United States and Canada, a principal is required to devise and communicate the plan to minimize a food-allergic child’s exposures. If there is a milk program, discuss how your dairy-allergic child will be accommodated (e.g. special table, no straws).
Specific Tips on Milk Allergy at School
- For classrooms with dairy-allergic students, request water and fruit/vegetable snacks instead of milk, if possible. Added bonus: less mess and more nutritious.
- Firmly request a “no-sharing” policy. Our daughter decorated a plastic container as her treat “jar”, which holds single servings of safe candy and small toys. The problem was getting the teacher to remember if unsafe food was served. Let your child know he or she is helping the teacher by reminding her.
- Get the school behind: a hand-washing policy. Pupils with food allergies should wash their hands before eating and everyone should wash afterward. Problem: With limited time and few washrooms, my dairy-allergic daughter had no time to eat her snacks. Solution? I now send wipes. We invented a two-Baggie technique: one is marked clean, and one dirty (use color-coded stickers for JK/SK).
- Discuss the dairy-at-school issue with your allergist. Get that advice in writing. A note from a medical specialist will carry weight.
- Work with the teacher; act as a resource. When the principal asks about dairy issues and milk allergy, don’t get defensive. Sometimes he or she just needs more information to help explain to other parents.
- Join the parent council; volunteer for events. You will be able to offer safe solutions to allergy issues that others fail to notice.
- The more dangerous times are non-routine days, including: substitute teacher days, outings, celebrations, snow days and guests in the classroom. Have a plan for these occurrences.
- Field trip awareness: What is the planned activity? Where will it happen? Who will be there? Will there be food present? If so, what is it – and who’s responsible for it? Will there be supervision by someone who is trained on symptoms and how to administer the auto-injector?
- Don’t discuss food issues or your dairy-allergic child with irate parents; remind them that changes are at the discretion of the principal.
Susan Clemens is the moderator of allergicliving.com’s Talking Allergies Forum. Join her for discussion under the “Schools” thread.
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
To subscribe and get the magazine delivered to your door, click here.