Getting back into an everyday routine, purchasing school supplies, and even convincing your little one that beach days are over can be a daunting task. For parents of children with celiac disease, the thrill of back-to-school can be more challenging.
According to Alice Bast, founder of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA) and an expert on celiac disease and the gluten-free lifestyle, “There are thousands of parents of school age children who have to learn to deal with their child’s celiac disease – an autoimmune digestive disorder triggered by the consumption of gluten – and make sure that they understand the implications of their medical condition and how they can manage this easily in a school environment.”
Every parent wants their child to make healthy food choices, but what if a cracker or a single bite of a chocolate chip cookie could make a child violently ill? The gluten-free diet is challenging at any age, but it can be especially hard on children. Food is social, and gluten-free kids often miss out on the moments their peers take for granted, such as eating a cupcake or pizza to celebrate a classmate’s birthday and trading lunches with a friend in the cafeteria. “It’s more than just food,” Bast said. “The gluten-free diet really is a lifestyle, so it can affect children’s confidence and their emotional and social health, too.”
Children with celiac disease must learn early about the health implications of their condition, and parents need to have an open conversation with them. They should reiterate that it is okay for their child to say “No, thank you.”
The number one goal for parents and school staff is to keep children gluten-free in school cafeterias, after-school activities and classroom parties. Bast recommends that parents meet with the staff prior to the school year starting so they can have a conversation about their child’s medical condition and the foods and items that must be avoided.
Fortunately, there are many gluten-free alternatives that can supplement kids’ favorite foods, and they are growing in popularity, such as gluten-free cookies, cupcakes, pasta, pretzels, crackers and gummy snacks. Some schools have even introduced gluten-free pizza for lunch. School arts and crafts also pose a concern for gluten-free children. Many non-food items can contain gluten, including some types of clay, paints and glues. How do parents handle this? One idea from NFCA is for parents to get a list of supplies needed from the school and then provide safe alternatives to keep in the child’s art supply box. If crafts involve pasta, parents can supply the school with gluten-free pasta in a variety of shapes and sizes, giving careful instruction to keep these items separate from the gluten-containing supplies.
Education is key. Parents may also opt to discuss celiac disease with the students in their child’s classroom so they can learn about the condition and understand why a child with celiac disease cannot eat cupcakes or share their lunch. Most importantly, parents can emphasize that there are many things the child still can eat, and that he or she likes making friends and playing together just like everyone else. Children want to feel accepted and not different, so it is important for a parent to explain in simple terms that encourage kids to be welcoming rather than leave the child out.
“We usually tell children that everyone has a health limitation because nobody’s body is perfect,” said Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, PhD, Training Director at Bay Area Family Therapy & Training Associates, Cupertino, Calif. “Some people wear glasses, others have a body that can’t run very well, and many have foods they don’t tolerate so well…Children with celiac disease are lucky to know about the needs of their body so young, because many people find out when they are adults and have complications.”
For additional coping strategies, NFCA recommends that parents read Gluten-Free Friends: An Activity Book for Kids, by Nancy Patin Falini, MA, RD, LDN, Kids with Celiac Disease: A Family Guide to Raising, Happy, Healthy Gluten-Free Children, by Danna Korn, and Mommy, What is Celiac Disease? by Katie Chalmers. The good news is that there is a greater understanding of celiac disease among school staff and a myriad of resources available at CeliacCentral.org. The foundation’s online hub also has a dedicated section called Kids Central where parents can find articles, advice and gluten-free snack suggestions. http://www.CeliacCentral.org.