When Is It Safe to Give My Baby Honey?

While it's a healthy food, it's not safe until 12 months old

Grandmother sitting beside granddaughter in high chair and holding pot whilst her granddaughter feeds herself from a blue plastic spoon
Ruth Jenkinson/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

When compared to other sweeteners, honey generally measures up as one of the healthiest—but not for infants. In fact, it has the potential to cause a rare but serious disease in babies called botulism, which can result in death. So, it goes without saying that this food is off limits! But only until your baby is 12 months old. 

Because honey may contain spores of a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum, and your infant's immature digestive system doesn't yet contain enough good bacteria to combat this harmful one, the spores can grow in his intestines and produce toxins that cause severe illness.

Once your baby reaches one year old and beyond, honey is safe to consume. 

Why Is Honey Okay at One Year Old?

Before your toddler's first birthday, his digestive system is just not up to the task of eliminating this contaminant from his body before it has a chance to grow and cause harm—but once he reaches his first birthday, things change. Dr. Ari Brown explains in her book Toddler 411, "Once kids have been out in the world for a year, their guts are full of enough 'good' bacteria that can break down the Clostridium botulinum found in honey." So, adults and older kids may actually ingest the bacteria from contaminated honey, too, but generally are able to deal with these small amounts before it makes them sick.

Does All Honey Have Clostridium Botulinum?

Not all honey contains Clostridium botulinum. According to the FDA, studies have shown that just 10-13% of samples contained it and only low numbers of the bacteria.

But in this case, it's better to be safe than sorry. The FDA, CDC, and American Academy of Pediatrics currently all recommend against giving honey to children under 12 months of age.

What About Cooked Foods That Contain Honey? 

Raw honey in any form should be avoided. However, many cooked commercial foods and products contain honey, such as breakfast cereals and baby food.

Are those safe to give your baby? Many of these foods have been heated to very high temperatures, which kills the spores, so they are unlikely to cause a problem. However, the California Department of Public Health's Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program states that they are unable to comment on the likelihood that honey-containing products will cause illness in babies. 

There are currently no laws in the United States requiring food manufacturers to disclose the same type of warning about honey that they must about common food allergens, though sometimes you might find a boldly lettered warning not to feed infants, honey. Those warnings are completely voluntary. The best route to finding out if a processed food contains honey is to read the entire list of ingredients. Common culprits include bread, cookies, crackers, yogurt, and sweetened peanut butter.

Is Corn Syrup Safer Than Honey?

Corn syrup has sometimes been blamed for cases of infant botulism, but as for actual documented cases, there doesn't seem to be much to go on. According to a statement from a group consisting of the Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada and Health Canada, "Corn syrup has never been directly implicated in a case of infant botulism." They go on to say that, "The conflicting evidence implicating corn syrup in infant botulism is not strong enough to classify corn syrup as a risk factor and, as such, we do not recommend against feeding corn syrup to infants." An article published in 2000 in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal also puts corn syrup in the clear.

Pediatricians sometimes prescribe corn syrup to ease constipation in infants, though there is still some debate about not only the botulism issue but also its effectiveness. Still, with no reported cases, I'd say you should have none of the same worries about honey when feeding corn syrup to your child.

What Are the Symptoms of Botulism?

In young infants, the symptoms can include constipation, lack of head control, poor eating, a weak cry and difficulty breathing. In older kids and adults, botulism can cause difficulty swallowing and breathing, droopy eyelids and gastrointestinal problems such as vomiting and diarrhea.

If you think that your child has ingested honey and could have infant botulism, seek medical treatment immediately. It can be deadly if left untreated.

Sources

Healthchildren.org, The American Academy of Pediatrics. Botulism. 

Infantbotulism.org. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Infant Botulism. 

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