Is It Safe To Give Honey For Babies?

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Your junior is about five months old and has begun teething. This is causing him agony and he keeps crying whenever you try to feed him. Your neighbor next door gives you a solution. “Give him a few drops of honey,” she says.

But is honey safe for babies? Agreed that it is a good source of natural sugar extolled for its dietary benefits but is it recommended for babies? In this MomJunction post, we will tell you why honey is NOT recommended for babies below one year and how feeding honey can be fatal.

Why Can’t Babies Have Honey?

Honey per se is beneficial to health but may not provide the same benefits to the developing bodies of a baby. Here are the reasons why honey for babies is not a good option.

The presence of clostridium botulinum: Honey is the natural reservoir/carrier for the spores of bacteria called clostridium botulinum. The botulinum bacteria is found commonly in nature (like in soil) and releases these spores into the air, which settle down on various objects in the environment. Spores are tough reproductive structures of bacteria that wait for the right conditions to form bacterial colonies.

Since honey is derived from nature, it invariably contains botulinum spores. Heating, boiling and even pasteurizing does nothing to destroy them (1). Therefore, spores enter the digestive system unhindered when contaminated food is consumed.

In children older than 12 months, these spores pose no danger since the body has enough checks to prevent their multiplication. But babies younger than 12 months lack this efficiency and are vulnerable to botulinum bacteria infection, referred to as infant botulism.

[ Read : Jaggery For Babies ]

What Is Infant Botulism?

Infant botulism is an ailment mostly seen in babies of less than six months of age, but it can happen in infants of 6-12 months as well. It is caused by a neurotoxin called botulinum toxin.

Babies have developing bodies, which means that the organs are still not fully developed. The same holds good with their natural intestinal bacterial flora, which are not developed enough to handle the bacteria. They do not have the numbers or the capabilities to put up a strong fight against the foreign bacteria entering the gut.

Also, the baby’s liver does not produce enough bile juice to stand a fight with the spores.

Honey poses a challenge to your baby’s developing gut:

When a baby consumes honey, the botulinum spores reach the small intestines to meet a small population of intestinal microflora. Since the spores face zero competition, they quickly replicate to form a colony of clostridium botulinum. This bacterial colony then releases a toxin called botulinum toxin, commercially called botox – the one used in cosmetics.

This neurotoxin overwhelms the nervous system of the baby by attacking the neurons and preventing them from sending any impulses and the baby feels floppy. Lack of impulses invariably leads to decreased muscle functionality, and in extreme cases, paralysis. Other symptoms are constipation (sometimes for several days), poor sucking and feeding, and unsual slow cry. Poor sucking can lead to dehydration.

It is due to these serious consequences that researchers and medical practitioners do not recommend honey for babies below the age of 12 months (2). After 12 months of age, the baby’s body has enough bile juice and large enough colonies of intestinal microflora to fight and mitigate the growth of clostridium botulinum bacteria.

Therefore, infant botulism is a good enough reason to keep your baby away from honey for the first few months. But what if he ingests it inadvertently?

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What If You Accidentally Gave Honey To Your Baby?

There could be an instance when your baby accidentally ingests honey or some enthusiastic relative feeds him some. In such situations follow this course of action:

  1. Do not panic: Panicking is not going to help. So do not fret nor let your partner do so. Botulism does not strike instantaneously.
  1. Take your baby to the doctor: This is the best solution to the situation. Take your baby to the pediatrician and share all the details – the quantity of honey and the time he consumed it. He will analyse of the situation and suggest appropriate actions.
  1. Keep observing: Once back home from the pediatrician, monitor the baby closely for the next one month. Your baby’s doctor is quite likely to suggest the same. Symptoms of botulism can emerge as late as 30 days since ingestion of the spores. Therefore, staying vigilant is the best you can do.
  1. If something is amiss, visit the doctor: Trust that maternal gut-feeling. If something seems wrong with your baby then take him to the doctor again.
  1. Breastfeed without missing the schedule: Continue to breastfeed. Breast milk helps induce intestinal bacteria and stimulates their growth (3). In fact, your baby’s intestinal bacteria can thrive and replicate only with the help of certain special sugars that are exclusively present in breast milk (4). Remember, these are the same bacteria that prevent spores of clostridium botulinum from multiplying.

Your baby should be fine if he shows no symptoms of botulism up to 30 days but let the doctor decide. There are chances, though, that you may still find honey sitting discreetly as one of the ingredients in several foods around.

Honey In Various Other Forms

honey for babies

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Honey, in small quantities, is commonly used in over-the-counter food items, which means you can find honey in bread, yogurt, and even in crackers. Bread and crackers may have undergone a thorough baking process and the yogurt may have undergone pasteurization. It may seem quite safe for the baby to consume but the fact remains that no amount of honey is safe for him.

Honey water, a mixture of warm water and honey, is also not safe for the baby since botulinum bacterial spores can persist in it. High temperatures kill the botulinum bacteria but do little damage to the tough bacterial spores that can thrive, waiting for the right conditions to multiply.

Even cooked honey or honey heated before consumption does not guarantee safety.

Staying away from honey is quite plausible, as you can check the ingredients and avoid products that have honey. But what about the use of honey pacifiers?

[ Read : Honey While Breastfeeding ]

Are Honey Pacifiers Safe For Babies?

Parents have been using honey pacifiers for babies since decades. But the fundamental fact about honey babies applies here too, which means that any amount of honey for a baby below 12 months is unsafe even if it comes from the tiny hole of the pacifier nipple.

The risk of contracting the infection is too high a price to pacify your baby. Honey from pacifiers is, thus, not a safe option. This does not mean that honey will always stay unsafe. There will be a time when you can finally feed your little one honey without worrying about botulism.

When Can Babies Have Honey?

You can safely feed honey to your baby once he completes a year of his life. By this age, a substantial amount of your baby’s nutrition would come from solid food. His digestive system is also stronger than it was some months ago and can effectively deal with the spores of the foreign bacteria. It is finally the time he can enjoy all the amazing benefits of honey like its effectiveness against chronic cough.

Honey For Babies Cough

Honey is very effective at controlling cough and is considered better than over-the-counter cough syrups for babies above the age of one year. Studies have shown that giving a baby 1.5 teaspoon of honey just 30 minutes before bedtime effectively soothes chronic coughs caused by bacterial infection (5). It also pacifies the babies, who are vexed with repeated coughing since honey works as a demulcent, a liquid that coats and soothes irritated mucous membranes.

[ Read : Raisins For Babies ]

Honey Allergy In Babies

In very uncommon cases, your little one may develop an allergy towards honey. We are referring to the allergic reactions among babies older than 12 months. This is not same as infant botulism, which is caused by bacterial infection.

You can identify allergy towards honey through classic food allergy symptoms viz.

  • Swelling in mouth and throat: The swelling will be concentrated at lips and the lateral throat muscles.
  • Swollen eyes with redness: The skin above the upper eyelids will be swollen with redness in eyes.
  • Skin hives: Red bumps or rashes that can cause mild to severe itching.
  • Nose congestion: This will be accompanied by redness and itchiness of the nose along with clear discharge from it.
  • Abdominal pain: The pain could be accompanied by diarrhea, vomiting and nausea.
  • Shortness of breath: A wheezing sound during breathing and general shortness of breath even at rest.
  • Anxiety and agitation: There will be a sudden bout of anxiety, and agitation with increased heart beat.
  • Fever: An increase in body temperature along with the above-mentioned symptoms.

A severe allergic condition is referred to as anaphylaxis, which displays allergic symptoms but with compounded intensity. Anaphylaxis due to honey is rare and usually occurs due to the presence of a pollen in honey rather than honey itself (6). Nevertheless, observe your baby when feeding him honey for the first time after completing one year.

Honey is good for health but as long as your little one is older than 12 months. Infant botulism is serious and can cause lasting repercussions to your baby’s health. It could be that you have been feeding honey to your baby all this while but he never fell ill. It is quite a pleasant chance but no chance is worth the effort if it gambles with the health and well-being of your precious bundle of joy.

Have some incident or experience to share with us? Leave us a comment below.

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