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How To Lower Kids' Allergy Odds

The conventional wisdom used to have it that there wasn't much parents could do to keep their kids from getting allergies. But new studies show that thinking may not have been all that wise.

On The Early Show Friday, pediatric immunologist Dr. Hugh Sampson of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York says research points to

parents can make it less likely their children will develop allergies.

He pointed out to co-anchor Harry Smith that this comes as allergies are on the rise in the U.S.: "At least 20 percent of American population, over 50 million people, are now affected by allergies, and a number of the studies show that this is increasing over the past several decades."

Sampson says couples thinking of having children who also want to get a pet, should get one before a baby arrives, ideally before a baby is conceived.

"In the past," he says, "we had always said that we shouldn't have pets in the house, that this would lead to more allergies. But the more recent studies show that, if the animal is present in the household before the baby arrives, it may actually be protective.

Mothers pass on anbtibodies, Sampson explains. "You're exposed to variety of different organisms, bacteria and such, that would actually help be protective against the development of allergy," he says.

Breastfeeding has been shown to help ward off allergy development. Says Sampson, "(It's) one thing we all agree is a very effective way to try to prevent allergy. This is for the whole population, but especially for families where there is a lot of allergy.

"The studies show that exclusive breastfeeding up to about four months of age is, or should be, adequate for protection. Beyond that, there are many other reasons to continue (breastfeeding), but for the real protection, it's the first four months.

Another tip: Don't smoke. Sampson says smoking "is another one that we all agree is a problem. Secondhand smoke has been associated with increased asthma, as well as increased sensitization to various allergens in the environment."

Also, suggests Sampson, don't keep peanuts in the house until a year of age. "This is an area that's quite in flux," he says. "There's an issue about how much exposure (is troublesome). And …if you're really trying to prevent (peanut allergies), you have to get it out of the household, because there's so much transfer on hand contact to the baby."

Sampson mentioned research suggesting farm animals protect against allergies: "There's been some very interesting studies out of Europe showing that farm families where the mother has a lot of contact in the barn with the animals, that those children are much less likely to developing allergies."

A final bit of advice from Sampson: Expose young children to older ones.

"One of the first observations in the so-called hygiene hypothesis," he explains, "was the younger child in a large family tended not to get allergies. And now we know that early exposure in day care centers and such may be protective against developing allergies."