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Ever wonder why you shouldn’t feed honey to your infant? Here’s why.

November 12, 2015

Botulism.

That’s a scary word, isn’t it? Even if you don’t know exactly what it means, you probably know that it isn’t good. It’s also the reason that we don’t feed honey to babies.

What is botulism?

Botulism is a rare but serious illness that is caused by a certain type of bacteria (primarily Clostridium botulinum) resulting in a progressive paralysis that can lead to respiratory failure and death.

Foodborne botulism can occur when foods are canned or packaged improperly (either at home or in a restaurant). The bacteria is usually found in soil, and it produces a dormant form called spores. If the spores find their way into food, and then the food is packaged or stored improperly, the bacteria will multiply and produce nerve toxins.

After a person consumes the toxins within the food, they may experience blurred or double vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, dry mouth and muscle weakness. If left untreated, the illness may progress to paralysis of the arms and legs as well as the respiratory muscles needed for breathing.

A person may also contract wound botulism. This means that the bacterial spores have found their way into a wound, and in some cases the toxins can be formed there and enter the bloodstream to cause severe illness.

What does botulism have to do with my baby?

There is another type of botulism that primarily affects young children, and it is known as infant botulism.

If you’ll remember from the above explanation, adults and older children can contract botulism if the bacteria is present in an environment were the toxins are able to grow (i.e. in improperly packaged or canned food products). If people were to ingest the bacterial spores themselves, the good bacteria inside their gut would destroy it and prevent it from producing the harmful toxins that makes people ill.

However, infants have not yet developed this protective gut bacteria. They, unlike most older children and adults, can become very sick simply from ingesting the bacterial spores. And remember, the bacteria is found in soil, so dust and dirt are a potential source of this illness. We also know that these bacterial spores can be found in honey. That is why you may have heard your doctor say that children should not be fed honey (or foods containing honey) until after 12 months of age.

Infants suffering from botulism may show symptoms such as constipation, a weakened cry, loss of facial expression, loss of gag reflex, slowed feeding or overall weakness or floppiness. Just like older people, if this condition is not treated it can progress to paralysis that can cause death.

Although infant botulism is rare, it is a very serious, often life-threatening illness.

It is certainly prudent to avoid honey as recommended in infancy because there’s just no reason to take an unnecessary risk. And remember, after one year of age it is safe to consume honey (and enjoy it!).

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