Everyone knows babies under a year old shouldn’t eat honey, right?
But — is it true? Where does that recommendation come from? What does the science show? At what point is it truly safe to feed babies honey?
I can never just accept what others believe as fact. I have to do some digging myself to find out what the evidence actually shows. So let’s dive in and take a look at the honey recommendations.
Why Skip the Honey?
The mainstream tells you to skip the honey because it can contain botulism spores, which an immature gut can’t handle (it could make the baby really sick), but an adult can handle. Okay, babies do have immature guts — that part’s legit. But what about the claims that botulism is found in honey or that an adult wouldn’t get sick from it? What about the idea that one year is the cut-off point where infants can handle botulism? Where did those claims come from, and are they true?
There are no other reasons to skip honey, by the way. It’s not a choking hazard, it’s not too sweet (obviously it’s sweet and should be used in moderation by everyone), there’s not something magical about it that makes it dangerous. It’s the botulism concerns alone that drove the recommendation to avoid honey in babies under one year.
Where Did the Botulism Concern Come From?
Botulism is caused by the bacteria clostridium botulinum. In adults and older children, the bacteria itself is harmless, but when it grows (usually in protein-rich spoiled food, like improperly canned meats) it produces a toxin that can be lethal even in small doses. In infants, however, the bacteria itself can lodge in the immature gut and can produce the toxin, making the baby sick.
Clostridium botulinum is an anaerobe and is found commonly in dust, dirt, and on produce (from the dirt). “Anaerobe” means that it doesn’t grow well in the presence of oxygen.
Honey is a thick, viscous liquid where the spores can reside, but not grow (not protein-rich). Back in 1976, a few infants got sick with infant botulism, and it was ultimately traced back to honey in about half of the cases. In a 1979 study, 9 out of 90 honey samples (all commercial) were found to contain low levels of botulism spores. Only one of the 9 samples contained higher levels, more easily detectable.
It is important to note that infant botulism from honey was never noted prior to 1976, and in European countries, wasn’t reported until the early 90s. Even then, there is an average of about 1 case per year in Europe, while the U.S. sees about 75 cases annually (U.S. data includes all cases of infant botulism; perhaps 20 or fewer are due to honey). Most cases occur in babies around 3 months old, but have been reported from about 1 week to 14 months of age.
Interestingly, most cases occur in babies born to fairly wealthy, well-educated white mothers who are otherwise healthy and are likely to be breastfed. In the majority of cases, the source of infection is unclear.
What changed in 1976 that led to botulism being present in honey? This study explains that honey is highly likely to be contaminated by pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, antibiotics, and more. Unlike other foods, honey is not regulated very well and has no legal limit set on contaminants, including antibiotics. The lower quality of honey may have led to the presence of the botulism spores. A lot of honey is imported, too, and isn’t really pure honey. It’s been filtered (honey is supposed to retain some of the pollen; that’s where its beneficial effects come from) and in some cases, adulterated.
Ultimately, the thought is that honey can become contaminated from dust and dirt which contain botulinum spores and this is how it gets to the babies.
Is It Really Dangerous?
The samples in the study cited above (where 9/90 samples were contaminated) largely contained tiny amounts of the spores. Another study notes that about 10% of all honey contains botulinum spores prior to being brought into a home (where it could get contaminated due to use, such as from unwashed utensils).
On the other hand, the same study notes that about 65% of infant botulism cases are not related to honey. Some sources note that corn syrup may also be contaminated.
The vast majority of infant botulism cases occur in babies who are 6 weeks to 6 months of age, although they have been reported rarely up to one year. (Interestingly, another risk factor for infant botulism is having fewer than one bowel movement a day for a period greater than two months — this can suggest disturbed gut flora and greater susceptibility to the clostridium botulinum spores. No, it is not normal for babies, even exclusively breastfed babies, to have infrequent bowel movements.)
Raw honey is known to have many benefits, as well. One study shows that it is an effective antibiotic against staph bacteria, e. coli, and others. Others note its effectiveness as a wound dressing or to treat burns. Still others have had benefits from reduced allergy symptoms, improved cold/cough symptoms, and more.
Why Babies CAN Eat Honey (Sometimes)
Babies under 6 months should not get honey. Their immature digestive tracts make it so that honey could be dangerous to them, if they were to receive one of the 10% of contaminated samples.
With babies over 6 months, I believe it is a judgment call. If they are eating solids and need honey medicinally, a small amount from a trusted farmer may outweigh the potential danger. The older a baby is and the more established his/her gut flora, the less dangerous it is.
Be aware of where you are purchasing your honey. Don’t offer it to a baby as “food” due to the high sugar content, but a tiny amount in a 10-month-old to calm a cough and help the baby rest may be worth it.
The point here isn’t to tell you what you should do. If you feel safer avoiding honey until past a year, do so. It’s best to know where the recommendation came from and think critically about it.
Hmm, couldn’t it also be more likely to see botulism in an infant with trouble pooping because mom gave the corn syrup per doctor’s orders to get the poop moving? You already said that corn syrup often has botulism spores as well…
I am not convinced that non-daily poops in a EBF infant is a reason for concern. All of my babies have done this and seemed just fine…
I don’t give it, but only because it just isn’t something I typically think about giving to a baby. We do honey for coughs and in baked goods. Interesting information. Pinned it. 😉
If honey were cooked, would it kill off the botulism spores? For example, if I used honey in baking bread or cookies?
Agree with most of what you said. The part I didn’t agree with is about infant bowel movements. It is not uncommon for breatsfed babies to have infrequent bowel movements. In La Leche League I have read that some babies may go a few weeks without a BM. Mine all went close to a week without a BM.
Really interesting post–I knew to be careful about where I got my honey (and to choose raw honey when I can afford it), but I’d never really stopped to think about where the botulinum might come from. I just assumed it was naturally occurring from bees’ contact with dirt. BTW, here’s a nifty bit of trivia about honey: it’s a hypotonic solution, which means that it sucks the moisture out of any microbes living in it. Botulinum bacteria can survive in a hypotonic solution, but most microbes can’t; that’s why honey has an indefinite shelf life and can be used to treat wounds (it’s also why salt water is usually antiseptic). I learned this in a college biology class taught by a professor who researches bees.
Never give babies 1 and under sugar period~ their little brains are developing and it is deadly thats why you don’t need to feed store bought baby food too~ its got sugar in it… Babies under one have not yet developed their immune system making it unsafe for babies under 1 year old due to botulism spores present in honey. This post alarms me its not okay to give babies under 1 honey while you surmise and wonder if it could be true, it could have very deadly consequences!
My chiropractor recommended honey before 1, as long as i knew the source. Honey isn’t “sugar” as the above poster claims. It is a very healthy alternative to sugar. Great article with Great sourcing.
The other “food” that you shouldn’t give a baby under 1 is elderberry. I give my kids elderberry syrup almost everyday during cold/flu season and couldn’t wait until my youngest pasted the 1 year mark to give it to her. Is this also a myth?
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My 8.5 month old is only having a bm every 8 days. I’ve tried massaging her belly, gave her her first prune today. What would you suggest to get her regular? She is breastfeeding and has some solid food, maybe once a day.
Good article. I would like to see a link to a study re the bf baby bowel movements please.
1. Bees travel up to a 7 mile radius of their hive, so even if you ‘know your farmer’ there is no guarantee that your honey will be free from pollutants.
2. Honey IS sugar. And all types of sugar are not recommended for babies under 1 year because they can develop a sweet tooth and refuse to eat healthy non sweet foods. It’s a bad habit to start which can lead to obesity. Plus it’s terrible for their teeth!
3. The risk of infant botulism from honey exists, there are several cases every year and it can be deadly. So why would you even risk giving it to your baby? Babies do not need to eat honey. Having a sore throat is a minor health issue that will resolve on it’s own without any treatment at all, you do not need to give them honey.
4. The risk from botulism from honey is avoidable. If there was no risk to babies from honey then sure, you could give them a honey drink when they get sick. But when you take into account that botulism risk, the benefits of honey don’t outweigh those risks. Your baby will recover from a cold, but botulism can kill.
What about during pregnancy?
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Well my mum has been giving us honey frm since we were 3 months and now I’ve been giving my kids.honey is a natural thing which can be given to babies it’s really good for constipated tummies and sore throat n.coughs in babies n kids.mix warm honey with little paperanf give it to babies for sore throat..if a medicine can be given to babies then y not honey 🙂
Whenever I see such an intense push and fear based warning against certain lifestyle choices its hard not to question it. I had a good friend tell me that he fed his baby milk and honey as an infant and that it was the best thing for babies. I however am still unsure, it if is true that botulism is a risk then it is not worth the risk. Many babies suffer from digestive issues, and many of honey’s properties make it seem like a great choice for any other age group. It is a compelling issue and one that I will have to spend more time with. I was curious your experience with it and if you have given it at all –
My daughter was hospitalized with life-threatening Infant Botulism at 8 months old. While she was in the PICU for 3 harrowing weeks I had plenty of time to read all the studies/research and while, yes, it’s true that very, very few cases are linked back to honey, a few have been. I would suggest that any parent considering giving their infant honey read not only the reassuring statistics about how incredibly rare IB is but also please read about what Infant Botulism IS ACTUALLY LIKE for those children who DO go through it and include that possibility in your decision-making equation. IB doesn’t mess around!
I gave my kids honey when I started them on solid foods. That was between 1987 and 1992. None of them got sick. They had a very healthy appetite… I even took them off formula by the time they were 3 mo old, giving them yogurt mixed with milk and pureed banana… milk with banana and honey when they started with finger foods, honey in their water when they didn’t have a bm when I thought they should have. Never got sick though. Guess my kids were of the 90% group who had no reaction to honey…but then, I used fresh honey from a local so maybe there’s a difference in that.
thank you for the post! since my son turned one, I have been wondering, how he could magically be tolerant to honey now!!
And you are absolutely right about the bowel movement, not going atleast once a day is not normal. My son is BF, and he used to not go for 2-3 days and that’s when I researched extensively despite everyone telling me that it is normal.
Read Natasha McBride’s Gut Psychology and she talks about disturbed gut bacteria in mother which travel through BM and goes to the baby makes the baby not have enough gut bacteria to have a healthy bowel movement.
So i increased his probiotic intake (live yogurt, kimchi) and I increased mine too. Now he has a regular Bowel movement everyday!!
I am an alternative pediatric doctor and I don’t lean either way on whether to give infants honey or not but I would like to speak to the 1 year mark and why physiologically there is a difference before 1 year vs. after 1year. Many people might already know this, but to simply inform anyone interested… From birth to age 1 the babies immune system is completely dependent on MOM. At age one the baby’s own immune system begins being able to tag or identify foreign invaders and fight infections. Before age one Mom’s breast milk is the baby’s only way to combat foreign invaders. So if baby is not getting moms milk (fresh, not warmed) then the immune system is unable to identify (Or tag something as “friend/foe”) fight any infection.
So physiologically your baby is different from 8 months vs 12 months. This point (as a side note) is also proof that vaccinations are unnecessary before age 1 years. The whole point to getting vaccinated is to inject a small amount of the disease into the body so that your Immunoglobulin (IGg) cells can identify it (tag it) as a foreign invader in order begin the cascade of immune fighting cells to fight it and remember it for later protection if exposed again. Well if there are NO IGg, etc in the body to know it is there, how will it remember it for later? I have participated in many conferences where the top CDC immunologists have laughed about the required vaccine schedule saying there is no real benefit for the immunizations before age 1, we just put that in the requirements (the 2 mo, 6 mo, and 9 mo shots) to train the parents to bring their child in so that at age 1 they are accustomed to doing it and won’t forget.
Sadly, that info might be hard to chew for some but the age 1 benchmark is also why some foods are better introduced later to prevent allergies, etc.
Age 1 DOES MATTER!!
Thanks for your article, very interesting. I use honey medicinally, and I’m comforted to know that it’s likely ok to use for my baby once she can eat food. Thanks!
I know this is an old post, but it was really helpful to me. My daughter accidentally got a bite of her older brother’s honey-containing food and I was freaking out. I’m relieved to know that it’s not an automatic poison for babies. So thank you for the links to actual studies and the good information!
[…] word of caution. Don’t feed honey to babies under one year old, their stomachs aren’t established enough to fight off the enzymes in honey. That’s a […]
Yes, you are right, why we skip honey when it gives us so many benefits even it acts as antibiotic.
I would argue that we have been importing honey from China since the early 70’s, it’s a known fact that honey from china has been mixed with high fructose corn syrup in order to make it cheaper (especially nowadays due to colony collapse), and therefor the botulism was caused by nasty corn syrup, which has no natural protection against such pathogens as opposed to honey.
The ancients would give honey to their babies upon birth to make their minds more poetic and sweeter, the Indians sometimes still do this. I don’t think that raw locally sourced honey would do your child any harm and would more than likely assist their body’s immune system in fighting off “neutralized” versions of pollen/potential allergens. This would, IMHO, help decrease chances of allergies to both bee-stings, and the plants in the area of the bees, the main problems being ragweed and birch/beech trees (can’t remember which.)
But as with all things, YOU are the parent, not the CDC or the FDA.
A poor mother has been under DFCS investigation because her baby died of SIDS. We have just figured out it was likely the honey in the formula they had sweetened it with. If you could see the pictures of one month to the day before she died you would see the dramatic change in the two. Puffy. Sad. Can happen.
I’m interested in the connection between not eating enough and cradle cap. Both my children, now 4 & 2 have it and had it while they were babies. I’m about to give birth and am curious how one would have their babies not have it, based on dietary practices.
Our PCP actually recommended honey for our babies under 1 to help their coughs.
I’m so afraid because I gave my grandson who is 5 1/2 months a half of a drop of syrup in his new milk Silim..that. He does not like ( he is a breastfeeding baby) and still is…and I told my daughter in law and she jump all over me .. for given my grandson syrup . Of course I never knew that it was not good for babies until she told me … I’m seventh four years old and in the 1966 ‘s we had no problem
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I have always heard not to give a baby honey or products trust contain honey. I’m very natural minded and keep my babies far from mainstream “health products”, otc meds, and the like… that being said- my son got infant botulism at 7 months old. I don’t believe this was the cause, but it certainly could have been- we use a salve for bumps called b and w ointment. He got a bump on his head and I used it over the next few weeks. He started to develop all of the signs and symptoms of Infant botulism. That was the one thing I could pin point to relate it back to honey… I don’t know if that’s how he got it, but I wouldn’t take the chance with honey, especially if you have a baby with a bad gut.
There are many other natural alternatives that promote healing when sick without the possible risk, so for me I would say say no to honey under a year to be safe.