Honey For Babies: When It Is Safe, Benefits, And Precautions

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The benefits of honey may be numerous for adults, but honey for babies below twelve months is considered unsafe. Honey is a natural sweetener with various health benefits. It also has medicinal properties and is often used in traditional medicine.

Many people across ages love to add honey to their drinks and food. However, since it is not a common allergen or potential choking hazard, many wonder why it is unsafe for babies.

Read on to know why experts do not recommend honey for babies younger than one year, the right time to give honey to your baby, and its health benefits.

Why Is Honey Unsafe For Babies Under One Year?

Feeding honey or anything that contains honey to babies younger than one year exposes them to the risk of infant botulism. Infant botulism is a rare but serious illness that occurs when a baby ingests toxin-producing spores of Clostridium botulinum bacteria (1) (2). Botulinum bacteria are naturally found in soil, dust, and certain food items, such as honey (3).

Even a drop of honey could expose the baby’s digestive system to bacterial spores, which may germinate in the gut. The bacteria multiply and produce harmful neurotoxins (4) (5). These neurotoxins (also known as botulinum toxins) can affect nerve functions, resulting in mild to severe symptoms (2) (5).

  • Constipation
  • Weakened cry
  • Poor feeding
  • Reduced gag reflex
  • Difficulty swallowing and sucking
  • Muscle weakness and floppiness
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Paralysis

The spores of botulinum bacteria could be present in processed or pasteurized honey. Therefore, you must avoid feeding any type of honey or honey-containing food items to babies under one year of age.

When Can Babies Have Honey?

Healthy babies can consume honey once older than 12 months (1). Healthy toddlers have a mature digestive system that can fend off botulinum bacteria effectively. Hence, they can enjoy honey as part of a well-balanced diet.

You can feed honey to a toddler by adding it to milk or different food items, such as oatmeal and porridge. Alternatively, you can spread it on toast or pancake or add it to yogurt or fresh smoothie.

Nutritional Composition Of Honey

There are hundreds of types of honey, and each has its unique nutritional composition (6). Generally, raw honey contains water, sugar (fructose and glucose), enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds, such as flavonoids and polyphenols (7) (8).

Although the nutritional composition of honey looks appealing, it contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, one has to consume honey in large amounts to reap its benefits (9). However, this isn’t advisable as honey is high in sugar.

Possible Benefits Of Honey For Toddlers

Honey contains sugars, such as fructose and glucose, which add flavor to food and give energy. It contains bioactive compounds that can offer several long-term benefits, such as improved digestion and strengthened immunity (10). Additionally, oligosaccharides in honey act as prebiotics that promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria (11).

Honey is also considered to possess anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, and antioxidant properties, which may be useful at treating certain conditions, such as wounds, cough, cold, and sore throat (10) (12) (13).  If you intend to use honey as a natural remedy, consult an alternative medicine expert. You must use honey for oral and topical use only among babies older than 12 months.

Precautions To Take While Feeding Honey To Toddlers

Here are some safety precautions that can ensure safe honey consumption in toddlers.

  1. Always prefer raw honey to processed ones as processing removes several vital nutrients and antioxidants from honey.
  2. Check the ingredient list carefully while purchasing honey. Commercial honey may have added sugar and other ingredients, which may not be healthy for toddlers.
  3. Introduce honey to your toddler after consulting your pediatrician. Once you get the approval, mix honey in milk or other solid foods, such as porridge, to feed your toddler.
  4. Begin feeding one-fourth to half a teaspoon of honey initially. Once the toddler adjusts to honey’s taste and digestibility, gradually increase the quantity to a tablespoon.
  5. Follow a “three to five-day wait” rule and stay vigilant to any signs of allergy or intolerance. Discontinue feeding honey immediately if the baby looks uncomfortable after ingesting it.
  6. Reintroduce honey in small quantities after some time and observe the toddler’s reaction. In case the toddler still shows signs of discomfort, stop feeding honey and consult a pediatrician.
  7. Allergy to raw honey is rare but possible (11). The allergic reaction symptoms, such as itchy skin and skin rashes (hives), wheezing, nasal congestion, cough, itching, swelling of the mouth and throat, and abdominal pain, may come up immediately after touching or ingesting honey.
  8. If your baby has a family history of allergies, especially pollen and bee products, consult your healthcare provider before introducing honey to your toddler. It is essential as pollens and bee products may contaminate honey, triggering an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals (14) (15).
  9. Although honey is a better alternative to white sugar, its judicious use is vital. Overfeeding honey to toddlers may cause dental caries and unwanted weight gain due to its high sugar content.
  10. Don’t use honey to improve seasonal allergies. No clinical evidence exists to support this use. On the contrary, feeding raw honey may sometimes be risky due to its potential to cause an immediate allergic reaction due to its pollen content (16).
  11. Honey should not be used for massaging the gums of babies who are teething. Rubbing honey can damage the dentition of small kids.

Honey for babies is safe after 12 months of age. It is a nutritious sweetener and in moderate amounts may improve digestion, strengthen immunity, and act as an antioxidant. However, feeding honey to babies younger than a year may expose them to Botulinum bacteria, whose toxin can affect nerve functions. Raw honey is preferable as the processed ones may contain added sugars not suitable for infants. Check with an expert before using honey as a home remedy in babies. Though rare, look out for symptoms of allergic reactions when introducing honey to your baby.

Key Pointers

  • Exposure to honey in babies younger than one year can put them at risk of infant botulism.
  • Constipation, poor feeding, breathing problems, paralysis are some symptoms of botulism.
  • Honey improves your baby’s immunity and digestion and also helps in healing wounds, cough, cold, and sore throat.

References:

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Dr. Rana Chanchal

(MD, DCH, PGPN)
Dr. Rana Chanchal is currently working as a senior consultant and head of the Department of Pediatrics and Neonatology at Charak Hospital and Research Center, Lucknow. He has completed under graduation and post-graduation in Pediatrics from King George's Medical University, Lucknow following which he completed a two-year fellowship in Neonatology from Manchester, UK. Dr. Rana has also done DCH from... more

Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist and toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different organizations. Her interest in scientific writing... more