Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Living with FPIES: Advocating for Your Child in School and Childcare Settings

Living with FPIES: Advocating for Your Child in School and Childcare Settings
Nichole L. Huff, Ph.D., CFLE

As a mom of a child with FPIES, one of the hardest decisions I ever made was entrusting someone else to care for my son, living with FPIES, for the first time. And, truthfully, for the second time and the third time… and every time that’s followed since. Because every time someone new cares for my son, I have to explain FPIES and everything it entails—the most important of which is what can happen if he’s exposed to a trigger. It’s a bit much to squeeze onto the “Known Allergies” line of standard childcare paperwork.

Needless to say, initially it was just easier to avoid outside childcare. If an FPIES reaction was going to happen, it was going to happen on my clock. Although this approach worked for a while, my “live-life-in-a-bubble” system wasn’t a practical, long-term solution for our family. We had to learn to manage FPIES, and as a dual-income family, this meant learning to advocate for our son in childcare and school settings.

I feel blessed to say that for over three years now, we’ve successfully navigated a full gamut of childcare options (ranging from family members, to babysitters, to Mother’s Morning Out, to church nurseries, to fulltime daycare, to fulltime preschool). Slowly I let go of my fear-driven need for control, and I began to trust others. Instead of being my son’s bodyguard, I learned to be his advocate.

Over the last three years, I’ve followed a few simple F.P.I.E.S. steps when advocating for my child in school and childcare settings:

1. Focus.

When communicating with childcare providers or educators, focus on the facts. The fact is: my child’s safety depends, in part, on the attention given to his food allergy. Every snack, lunch, sippy cup, birthday treat, holiday candy, or crumb on the floor must be monitored. Every time my son eats or drinks something that I didn’t provide, the nutritional label must be read. Text, call, or email me anytime there’s a question as to whether or not a food (or ingredient) is safe. My son’s caregivers must be focused on keeping my son safe too.

2. Plan.

You can never be over-prepared when your child has a food allergy. Always plan ahead. At home, I have any unsafe foods clearly labeled. I have a “safe shelf” where my sitters or son can easily identify quick snacks or meals. I pack a healthy, safe lunch and plenty of snack options each day for my son to take to school. (And in years past when my son ate school-provided meals or snacks, I coordinated with the school to ensure that they knew how to read food labels and identify FPIES-safe foods).  

3. Inform.

When childcare providers or educators initially learn of your child’s FPIES, don’t be alarmed if they’re a little nervous. After all, you’re entrusting them with a lot. Help them learn to take the necessary precautions without treating your child differently. To me, it’s important to inform my son’s teachers that he’s just a normal kid who learns the same, plays the same, and loves the same as everyone else. His diet is restricted, but he isn’t. In our case, he’s just a rough-and-tumble, happy, sweet, smart little boy who can’t have milk proteins.

4. Educate.

Educating yourself on FPIES isn’t enough. You have to share what you know to others. Educate those who teach or care for your child on the essentials of allergy safety. In the case of FPIES, most reactions are delayed, and many need to be treated with fluid or IV resuscitation. With the help of your child’s physician (or using resources like those available at http://fpiesfoundation.org/emergency-care/), create an action plan. Also, most people don’t know how to read a food label for allergens. Educating others on basic allergy awareness is a simple yet effective way to minimize your child’s risk of accidental ingestion. As my son has grown, I’ve also educated him on his allergy and taught him to question the safety of new foods when they’re introduced.

5. Support.

Anyone who cares for my son has my number on speed-dial. I ardently convey that I am available at any time, for any question, big or small. In order to build a thriving, trusting relationship with childcare providers or educators, it’s important that I fully support them in their efforts to care for my son. I ask what I can do to more easily facilitate the management of his FPIES. Sometimes this means providing all of my son’s foods, other times it means visiting the school’s stock room to read food labels. I volunteer to provide safe foods for class parties and I’ve written blurbs for the parent newsletter bringing awareness to my son’s FPIES and offering suggestions for safe treats. By fostering communication between teachers, administrators, and other parents, I help to support the network of people who keep my son safe while I’m away.

Nichole Langley Huff is an assistant professor and Extension Specialist at North Carolina State University. Dr. Huff has a Ph.D. in Family Sciences and a M.S. in Marriage and Family Therapy. She is a Certified Family Life Educator with the National Council on Family Relations. Her areas of research include child development, parent-child communication, and bio-psycho-social health. Dr. Huff also has a weekly parenting blog at http://soapboxmommy.com/

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