Before we delve into the intriguing topic of honey for infants, let’s acknowledge the joyous occasion that the birth of a baby brings to Indian households. Each family has its own cherished traditions, and one such common practice is feeding babies honey. However, this seemingly harmless tradition has ignited a fiery debate among Moms and their family elders. The question at the heart of the controversy is whether honey, which Ayurveda recognizes for its health benefits, is suitable for young babies or if it could potentially pose risks instead. Let’s uncover the truth and unravel the complexities surrounding honey for infants.
Can I give my Baby Honey? Understanding the Safety of Honey for Infants
During my internship days, I encountered an intriguing belief among new mothers’ relatives. They insisted that I feed the newborn a teaspoon of honey, claiming that the baby’s first taste should be sweet and that it would determine their future profession. Another superstition tied to honey was that it would facilitate the baby’s first bowel movement. These beliefs were deeply ingrained, to the extent that even when informed that honey isn’t recommended for infants, families would seek out another doctor to fulfill their request.
However, when it comes to infants, it’s essential to understand that honey is not suitable for their consumption. The risk of infant botulism, a serious illness caused by the bacteria present in honey, outweighs any perceived benefits. Instead, it is important to prioritize the health and well-being of infants by avoiding honey and ensuring they receive the proper nutrition from their mother’s milk, particularly colostrum. This initial yellow milk is abundant in antibodies, protein, and has natural laxative properties to aid in passing 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, a severe form of food poisoning caused by the bacteria Clostridium Botulinum, poses a significant risk when it comes to honey for infants. While this bacteria is harmless to adults and older children, infants can be vulnerable to its spores, which can settle in their intestines and produce toxins, leading to serious illness.
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 for infants.
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. Therefore, breastfeeding mothers can enjoy honey without posing any risk to their infants. So, when it comes to honey for infants, it is crucial to avoid feeding it directly to babies, but breastfeeding mothers can consume it without any concerns.
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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.
For the safety, it is crucial to avoid honey for infants for the first year. With limited testing conducted on honey samples, it’s challenging to identify which ones are free from the botulinum toxin. Therefore, it is advisable to exclusively rely on breast milk for the initial six months, ensuring both nourishment and protection for your baby.
For Further Reading:
- Association between honey consumption and infant botulism.
- Mayo clinic – How can I protect my baby from infant botulism?
- WHO – Infant Botulism
- Honey and other environmental risk factors for infant botulism