When I opened my daycare a few years back, the regulations stated that I could not serve honey. I was puzzled by this. Why in the world would honey be bad for babies? Honey is all natural, if you buy it organic, and it’s one food that will never go bad. It doesn’t even need to be refrigerated. All this is true, but honey, especially wild and organic honey, might contain a spore that is commonly found in the dirt. This spore is called Clostridium botulinum, and it can produce bacteria that causes infant botulism.

The symptoms of infant botulism are first constipation, followed by weakness in the limbs, and then difficulty breathing. Clostridium botulinum affects infants this way because their intestines are not mature enough to handle the bacteria, and that’s where the bacteria will settle. When an infant swallows Clostridium botulinum, it causes the bacteria to inhabit the child’s large intestine, creating a buildup of botulinum toxin. Adults have a strong intestinal tract compared to an infant, and if they encounter small amounts of the bacteria, it’s most likely to be harmless because of the balance of acids in their intestines. However, Clostridium botulinum can be toxic to even adults in high levels, but high levels are typically not found in honey, even in wild or raw unpasteurized honey.

To be on the safe side, the American Academy of Pediatrics has advised that no honey should be given to children that are twelve months of age or younger. This includes baked goods and even store bought items like corn syrup and honey graham crackers. However, there’s no need to panic if you’ve been regularly giving your child graham crackers to gum on. The real threat is in actual honey, and the threat is even higher when the honey hasn’t been pasteurized. The precautions are just to cover all the bases, because infant botulism can deadly if it isn’t treated properly or if it’s diagnosed too late.

I’ve also been asked if an infant can get infant botulism through breast milk if the mother has eaten honey. The answer is no. Clostridium botulinum cannot be transferred from the mother to the infant through breast milk. The child is only at risk if they ingest the honey themselves. Though other cultures regularly give their children honey or products made from honey from birth on with no ill effects, I would recommend listening to the American Academy of Pediatrics and keep the honey pot away from your child until they’re at least a year old. 

Sources:

  • Ramroop, S., Williams, B., Vora, S., & Moshal, K. (2012). Infant botulism and botulism immune globulin in the UK: A Case Series of Four Infants. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 97(5), 459-460.
  • Frequently asked questions about infant botulism. (n.d.). Infant Botulism Treatment and Prevention Program. Hoecker, J. L. (2012, June 20). Infant and toddler health. Mayo Clinic.