Grace O'Neill - Food Allergy Mum Interview Series May 16, 2017 10:55

Food Allergy Week May 14-20, 2017

Australian children have the highest recorded rate of food allergies in the world. One in 10 babies born in Australia today will develop a food allergy. As, Food Allergy Week coincides with Mother's Day this year we are highlighting the awesome work of Aussie Food Allergy mums and advocates.

Australia has the unfortunate title of "Food Allergy Capital of the World". Hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions quadrupled in the last 20 years, while alarmingly the number of allergy-related deaths in Australia is increasing by 10 per cent each year. 

Food Allergy Week, May 14-20 is an initiative of Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia to raise awareness of food allergies in Australia.

In our Food Allergy Mum Interview Series, we hope to promote understanding and insight in to the challenges of parenting a child with life threatening food allergies, along with the need for change to build an allergy aware allergy safe commUNITY!

Grace O'Neill, Children's author & Pediatric Counsellor

What are your child’s allergies? When did you find out?

My oldest son is now 8. He was diagnosed at 9 months, after ongoing rashes. As a baby, he was at risk of anaphylaxis to 8 out of the top 9 allergens. He was also allergic to numerous other foods. He has since outgrown a number of his allergens and only reacts to cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts and most of the tree nuts. My younger son is now 4. He was diagnosed at 3 months old, with multiple non-IGE mediated allergies. I breastfed both of my kids until about 18 months age. Both of them required specific diets that were free from their allergens. Both our boys also suffer from asthma, although their asthma is now well controlled thanks to preventative medications.

What would be one of the most difficult aspects of daily living with food allergies?  Or one of the biggest challenges raising a child with food allergies?

The never- ending cycle of having to cook, clean and cook again means that there is rarely a meal off, let alone a day off. We are also very careful about who looks after them apart from their dad and myself.

How important is the support of friends, family, and community?

We have been surrounded by some very supportive friends and community. Just today we attended a birthday party, and since our son was unable to have the same lollies in his party bag, he was the only child to get OOSHIES instead. He was delighted! As I was explaining to my son that he might be able to have an icypole from the café, another friend rushed over to let me read the ingredients on her icypole. These kids are only 8, but they show remarkable compassion, understanding and support to our son.

What would you like other people to know about caring for a child with food allergies? How can families who don’t live with food allergies be extra safe around your food allergic child?

We don’t expect others to eat only the foods we eat. However, our friends have ensured that their children sit when they eat and wash up well afterwards to avoid contamination. We try not to focus on food when the kids are around. Instead, we focus on activities and having fun. This is something all the kids can share in!

Do you have a proud mum moment (of your food allergic child?) that you would like to share?

There are many proud moments as an allergy mum. Most recently, my son began to advocate for himself, asking the teachers whether he could substitute certain ingredients to make it safe for him to participate. Although I did have interactions with the teachers too, he was able to make suggestions that were suitable for him. Just two weeks earlier he came back from school with a recipe for Anzac biscuits that he had copied out of a book. He had actually substituted Nuttelex for butter, to make it safe for him to eat. I believe effective allergy education has meant that both our boys are able to live a very full, social and fulfilling life, despite their allergies.

What would be one piece of advice for parents who have a child with new food allergy diagnosis?

Join a community where you can ask questions and gain knowledge from others who have been there before. Facebook has lots of groups you can join, and gives us an opportunity to ask serious questions and occasionally just let off steam with others who understand. I facilitate a Facebook Group called Allergy Fun – Support. Topics range from food ideas, medical issues, social situations and even to social gatherings with local families. Although I run the group, there are many parents who contribute and whom I also learn things from.

How can we raise food allergy awareness in our communities?

I think we have made great head way in many areas of allergy awareness. However, I believe the social and emotional impact of food allergies is not often considered. Schools and Kinders can do a lot more to support our children in this area. This is the reason I wrote the book Allergy Fun – growing up with multiple food allergies

Thank-you for being a food allergy awareness advocate. What inspires you?

I didn’t choose to become an allergy mum, but being able to help others through personal counselling and group support gives meaning to the journey we are on. One of the most important parts of being an allergy parent is to make sure we take time out to rest, refuel and rejuvenate. Nobody can keep going all the time, and our kids need us to be well, both physically and mentally.

Grace O'Neill is a mother of two lovely boys. Her eldest is at risk of anaphylaxis to milk, eggs and all nuts, and her youngest has multiple food allergies. Grace is the author of food Allergy Fun, Growing up with Food Allergies designed for children with multiple food allergies. Grace is a trained counsellor and provides individual counselling for allergy parents and children. Allergy Fun is the coming together of her life with two allergy kids and her desire to see all kids develop into caring, confident and contributing members in our society. Allergies has taken our family's life on a different route than expected. Along the way, I have been blessed to meet many others who are on the same road, and by travelling together, we can encourage, laugh and cry, knowing we are not alone.