Peanut allergy incidences could plummet by 77 per cent if children are introduced to products containing the allergen at an early age, according to a new study.
Researchers say that parents have a “clear window of opportunity” when introducing an allergen into their baby’s diet, particularly when they are between four and six months old.
They said that waiting to introduce the peanut products until the children are a year old would lead to cases reducing by a only third.
Many global health bodies, including the UK's National Health Service, currently recommend introducing solid foods to babies from about six months of age.
But new findings, recently published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, show that there is a case for reviewing guidelines.
Graham Roberts, from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and University of Southampton, said that there have been numerous studies that show that introducing foods from three to four months of age “very successfully reduce the chances of developing peanut allergy and other food allergies as well”.
Prof Roberts said there are challenges to overcome because over many decades, “the deliberate avoidance of peanut has understandably led to parental fear of early introduction”.
He said: “This latest evidence shows that applying simple, low-cost, safe interventions to the whole population could be an effective preventive public health strategy that would deliver vast benefits for future generations.”
Peanut allergy affects about 2 per cent (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 of age.
It is more common in children with severe eczema and egg allergy, the researchers said, and children of non-white ethnicity are also more likely to be affected.
As part of the study, the researchers looked at data from the Enquiring About Tolerance and Learning Early About Peanut Allergy studies.
The Leap study involved 640 babies considered at high risk of developing peanut allergy and examined the early introduction of peanut products.
For the Eat project more than 1,300 three-month-old babies were recruited in England and Wales and tracked over several years to investigate the early introduction of six allergenic foods: milk, peanut, sesame, fish, egg and wheat.
They also looked at data from the Peanut Allergy Sensitisation study.
The researchers said their findings showed it was best to introduce peanut products to babies at four to six months of age.
For babies with eczema, the researchers recommend introducing the products, smooth peanut butter or other suitable 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 solids.
The team also advises mothers to breastfeed for at least the first six months of their child’s life, alongside introducing peanuts to their diet from four to six months.
Babies developing serious allergic reactions, such as difficulty in breathing, should seek immediate medical attention, the scientists said.
Prof Gideon Lack, from King’s College London and Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust said: “The benefits of introducing peanut products into babies’ diets decreases as they get older.
“This reflects the experience in Israel, a culture in which peanut products are commonly introduced early into the infant diet and peanut allergy is rare."