The birth of a baby is a cause of celebration in Indian households, and every family has its own set of special traditions for the occasion. One such ritual that is common among many households in India is the one of feeding babies honey. This topic has become highly controversial these days, with constant arguments among Moms and the elders in their families about whether they can feed their babies honey or not. According to Ayurveda, honey has several health benefits, but the question is whether these benefits apply to young babies or if they cause harm instead.
Can I give my Baby Honey?
During my internship days, I remember that after a delivery, the new mother’s relatives used to ask me to feed the newborn a teaspoon of honey. Their reasoning was that a baby’s first taste should be sweet, and that in the future, the baby would choose the profession of the person who fed her first! There is also a superstition that the baby will pass meconium (the first bowel movement) only if he is fed honey. These beliefs are so strongly rooted that even if the family is told that honey isn’t supposed to be fed to an infant, they just go ahead and search for another doctor to feed the baby honey. The fact is that a baby’s first food should always be his mother’s milk, particularly colostrum, the first yellow milk that is rich in antibodies and protein. This milk also has laxative properties and encourages the baby’s body to pass meconium.
Why can’t honey be given to babies under 1 year?
The WorldHealthOrganization reports that:
Infant botulism occurs mostly in infants under six months of age. Different from food borne botulism caused by ingestion of pre-formed toxins in food, it occurs when infants ingest Clostridium botulinum spores, which germinate into bacteria that colonize in the gut and release toxins. In most adults and children older than about six months, this would not happen because natural defenses that develop over time prevent germination and growth of the bacterium.
Although there are several possible sources of infection for infant botulism, spore-contaminated honey has been associated with a large number of cases. Parents and caregivers are therefore warned not to feed honey to infants under the age of one.
How does a baby get Infant Botulism?
Botulism is a kind of food poisoning caused by the bacteria Clostridium Botulinum. This bacteria grows and produces toxins in improperly maintained meats, canned foods, foods from the soil and honey. The disease is considered dangerous, and may even result in death. While the bacteria itself is harmless in adults and older kids, the spores can get stuck in an infant’s intestines from where it produces the toxin and makes the baby very ill.
Being a thick liquid, spores cannot grow in honey, although they can reside there. Several reports of infant botulism in the past have been traced back to honey, and many samples of honey were found to contain botulism spores. Most cases of infant botulism are seen in babies under the age of 3 months, but can occur anytime from 1 week onward.
Honey is one of those foods that has high chances of being adulterated, filtered and contaminated by all kinds of additives – pesticides, metals and antibiotics, to name a few. Very few brands of honey are actually tested for contaminants, making the majority of available honey high risk.
Signs of Infant Botulism
Symptoms for infant botulism generally make an appearance 18 to 36 hours after the toxin has entered the baby’s system and include:
- Constipation followed by lethargy or weakness
- Drooping eyelids
- Difficulty in breathing
- Loss of previous head control
- Decrease in gagging and sucking reflexes
In extreme cases or lack of medical attention, these signs may worsen followed by complete respiratory arrest or paralysis.
Treatment for Infant Botulism
Infant Botulism is a serious condition which requires emergency treatment. Please don’t rely on home remedies for this; as soon as your baby exhibits any of the above symptoms, rush to your pediatrician who will start your baby on the right course of treatment. The Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program recommends continuing breast feeding or the feeding of expressed breast milk during the illness and recovery from infant botulism.
Since honey is not safe for infants, is it okay for a breastfeeding mother to have honey?
Yes, it is safe for a breastfeeding mother to eat honey. Neither the botulinum toxin nor botulism is transmitted by breast milk. Even if a mother was to eat honey contaminated with botulism spores, they would be far too large to pass through her body and into breast milk. For this and other reasons, breast milk is not a source of the bacterial spores or the toxin that cause infant botulism.
How can Infant Botulism be prevented?
As always, thorough hand washing practices should be strictly adhered to, especially in households where honey is regularly consumed by family members and other caregivers. Doing so will help prevent having honey on surfaces that may come into contact with the infant’s mouth.
Coming to commercial foods like Cerelac which have honey in them, it’s best to stay far away from them. This is just one of the reasons we never recommend commercially manufactured foods for babies less than 1 year. It’s always better to opt for homemade baby food, since you can be assured about what goes into it.
Not all samples of honey contain the botulinum toxin, but since very few are actually tested, it’s hard to know which ones are safe for your baby and which are not. So, it’s better to be safe than sorry; avoid honey for the first year and stick to only breast milk for the first six months.
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