Honey is a tasty natural sweetener, but it isn’t safe for babies. Learn why you shouldn’t give your baby honey, and when it’s safe to start introducing honey into your baby’s diet.
Why is honey unsafe for babies?
You should never feed honey, or any kind of food that contains honey, to a baby under 1 year of age.
This is because honey contains a type of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. C. botulinum is normally found in dirt, pollen, and dust, but it easily contaminates honey.
When it’s living and growing, this bacteria produces botulinum toxin.
And in babies, this bacteria and toxin can cause a rare but serious illness known as infant botulism.
What is botulism?
Infant botulism is a serious illness that attacks a baby’s nervous system. It is relatively rare, with around 100 cases reported in the US per year.
But when a baby has botulism, it is a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
Most infants will fully recover from the illness, but only after a hospital stay that often spans several weeks and requires ventilator treatment.
Often, babies will be given an anti-toxin drug called BabyBIG® during their hospital treatment.
In rare cases (about 2% of the time), botulism ends up being fatal.
Infant botulism is most common in the youngest infants. About 90% of worldwide cases develop in infants under 6 months of age
Symptoms of botulism may include:
- Constipation (often the first symptom to appear)
- Weakened muscles
- Floppiness (a sign of decreased muscle tone)
- Poor sucking on the breast or bottle/Difficulty feeding
- Decreased appetite
- Weaker cry
- Significant tiredness
- Drooping eyelids
- Trouble breathing
- Trouble swallowing
- Seizures (rarely)
- Paralysis of muscles or respiratory tract (rarely)
If you think your baby has botulism, seek emergency care for them immediately. Tell the doctor if you gave your baby honey, as this will help them make the right diagnosis.
Why does C. botulinum only put babies at risk for botulism?
Adults and children 1 year of age and older can eat honey with no issue because their digestive systems are fully developed, and because the C. botulinum bacteria in honey is dormant.
When someone’s digestive system is mature enough, it can properly handle the bacteria so it doesn’t become a threat. The dormant bacteria doesn’t “wake up” when the person consumes honey. And bacteria that stays dormant can’t produce the botulinum toxin.
But babies under 1 year of age have digestive systems that are still developing. Their immature digestive systems (and immune systems) aren’t equipped to properly handle C. botulinum. Instead, their bodies create an ideal environment for C. botulinum to thrive.
When a baby consumes C. botulinum in honey, the bacteria “wakes up” once it enters their large intestine. This makes the bacteria able to grow in the intestine and produce the toxin, which leads to botulism.
Learn more about C. botulinum’s danger to babies from My Pocket Pediatrician:
When can I start feeding baby honey?
Don’t feed honey to your baby until they turn 1 year old. To keep baby safe, you’ll need to avoid giving them all forms of honey, whether it’s raw, pasteurized, or used as a natural sweetener in foods like crackers.
But after your little one turns 1, you can start introducing them to honey. Try mixing it into foods like oatmeal and yogurt, adding some to fruit smoothies, drizzling some on toast, pancakes or waffles, or using it in muffins as a natural sweetener.
What else should I know about babies and honey?
- Wash dishes that had honey on them carefully. Also, don’t touch baby’s dishes right after you’ve touched honey --- wash your hands first. That way, the honey won’t “contaminate” the dishes you use to feed a baby under 1 year of age.
- If you’re breastfeeding a baby under 1, you can still eat honey. You can’t pass the C. botulinum bacteria to your baby through your breastmilk.
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