You might think it’s a harmless natural treat, but honey is potentially very harmful for your child.
• Honey is considered a natural and healthy way to sweeten food
• Honey and other natural sugars can contain a strain of bacteria
• Clostridium botulinum could be harmful for your baby
Introducing your baby to the world of food is an exciting time, but understandably, it is a period in which most parents get overwhelmed with conflicting advice and guidance. Obvious things such as choking and allergies can cause worry, and a lot of parents avoid foods with added sugars and sweeteners.
Giving young babies under the age of one naturally sweet foods like bananas and baby carrot is obviously a safe option. Likewise you would probably consider a little honey fed from your fingertip or added to oatmeal as fine. However, it is important to know that this is not the case.
Why can honey be harmful?
If you introduce your baby to honey too soon, there is the risk of your child contracting infant botulism. A baby can catch botulism by consuming Clostridium botulinum, which are bacteria-producing spores found in soil, honey, and honey products. In the baby’s young intestines and bowels, these spores can multiply and quickly turn into bacteria that the young digestive system cannot fight, leading to harmful toxins spreading around the baby’s body.
If you are breastfeeding, a common concern is that the food you eat can be passed on to your baby through your milk when you are lactating. However, there is no need to worry if you have been consuming honey, as it is not possible for the bacteria to transfer through your breast milk.
What happens if a baby gets botulism?
Experts have estimated that babies under the age of six months are the most vulnerable to this rather serious condition. However, it is important to stress that while it is rare, most of the cases that are diagnosed are done so in the United States.
If a baby is diagnosed with botulism, around 70 percent of cases result in the infant receiving mechanical ventilation for around 23 days to prevent any respiratory failure. The fatality rate is fewer than two percent. Statistics say that the average hospital stay for botulism is around 44 days. Unfortunately, recovery can be slow, with signs of recovery followed by setbacks, but once the condition is officially diagnosed, doctors can generally treat it well.
Is my baby at risk?
Again, the risk of botulism is pretty low, and it is treatable – as long as it is caught in time. So, what kind of symptoms should you look out for?
One of the really significant symptoms is weakness and floppiness. For example, the facial muscles will not be working properly, leading to drooling, closed eyes, and a downturned mouth. There could also be trouble swallowing and signs of constipation. Because the toxins cause paralysis from head to toe, as the condition gets worse, the floppiness will descend down the baby’s body.
Your baby may also be irritable and be crying weakly. Seizures are also a less common sign. Some of these symptoms of botulism, particularly the lethargy and irritability, could lead to an incorrect diagnosis of other conditions, such as sepsis or meningoencephalitis, so be sure to let the physician know the baby has consumed honey.
What if they have had honey?
Symptoms typically show up within 12 to 36 hours of the infant consuming food with honey. But in some cases, signs won’t show until a couple of weeks.
Of course, you can not always monitor what exactly your child eats. There may be some foods that you don’t realize contain honey or honey products, or a well-meaning friend or family member could have given your baby a taste of honey.
But there is no need to panic. Keep an eye on your little one for any symptoms – they are pretty apparent signs, so you will be likely to notice. The majority of botulism cases develop after consuming raw honey, which is less commonly used than ‘pasteurized’ honey. If they do start to show signs, take them to the closest emergency room. The condition can be quickly diagnosed by a stool test.
When can my baby have honey?
It is worth emphasizing that there is no real need to feed your baby sweet things. Most sweet things do not have nutritional value, and even natural foods such as bananas and berries contain high amounts of sugar. Vegetables such as broccoli and peppers have the same nutrients but fewer sugars. Just remember that if they have never had something sweet, they won’t miss it. It’s a fact that the taste of sugary foods is addictive. This will lead to babies starting to refuse other foods that are not as sweet.
But, that said, as soon as your baby is more than one year old, you can put honey on the menu if you want to. The bacteria from Clostridium botulinum spores will no longer pose a risk to your baby past that point because their slightly matured digestive system will be able to combat the bacteria effectively.
A deeper dive: related reading on the 101
A guide for different foods that could be bad for your baby.
Diet and lifestyle advice for a happy, healthy pregnancy.